Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde2021-10-15
Title: Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde
Author: Kristian Williams
Foreword: Alan Moore
Foreword: Green Carnation; Black Flag
In this foreword, Alan Moore lays out that argument that anarchism is not and should not be limited to the purely utilitarian. Indeed, anarchism has a fiery, Romantic/romantic heart. It has always been full of poetry and art and sensuality and sexuality and liberation. Moore also rightly points out that, though Wilde came from aristocracy, he did not respect it in the slightest. To me, this is the very essence of “bread and roses.” We need loveliness and beauty to survive.
Introduction: The Soul of Man under…Anarchism?
To the Depths
The first section of the introduction gives a brief biological sketch of Wilde as well as a short overview of what anarchism looked like when Wilde was alive and writing.
Declarations and Evasions
This second section explains Wilde’s socialism and how he explained his views. It also shows how his politics evolved over time.
I found interesting the critique of “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” quite fitting; it is focused on the artist and is very utopian, and it does have a role for the state. However, that it focuses on beauty and the liberty of a person to do what pleases them, that need not be unradical. I think it goes hand in hand with more obvious political writing.
The author places “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” within the anarchist canon and situates Wilde in relation to anarchist thinkers such as Kropotkin and Goldman. This section also shows the purpose of reading politics as a priority in Wilde, as it opens up connections to political events in his work. However, Wilde is not without his sins, and it is important to acknowledge these contradictions in his life and work. Indeed, he is ahead of his time and very much of his time.
I think handling these contradictions is something we (and I include myself) struggle with. Where do we draw the line? Perhaps it is useful to use Donna Haraway’s theory of Assemblages here. In her “A Cyborg Manifesto”, she argues that the metaphor of the cyborg is not the resolving of contradictions in feminist theory and identity but rather a conjoining of them. I believe she uses the phrase “monstrous affinity”. I recently read her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, and a key theme of that text is not escaping humanity or its problems but rather living-with and dying-with them; we can “make kin” between things that seem to not be related, and “stay with” that trouble.
On the Side of Civilization
This last section of the introduction is brief. It shows how Wilde connected the concept of Individualism with Civilization. It also makes the argument that of course no person, but Wilde in particular, is an anarchist or anything completely 100% of the time; but, not being nailed down by one school of thought, refusing to be governed even in that way, is very much an anarchist trait. I love the point the author makes here, that Wilde’s imperfections and inconsistencies are central to his anarchism and to his philosophy and art in general. Without them, Wilde would not be wild.
Chapter 01: The Dynamite Policy: Cosmopolitan Nationalists, Aesthetic Terrorists, and Nihilist Saints
Propaganda by the Deed
This first chapter starts with a bang. It discusses the rise of anarchist violence and terrorism during Wilde’s time, as well as what Wilde and other anarchist thinkers thought of it. I like the point that, while some of these actions were indeed direct action by anarchists, much of it came from adjacent movements or was the work of police provocateurs. The concept of “propaganda by the deed” is that violence against those of the ruling class will show the weakness of that class and thus inspire revolt, leading eventually to revolution.
I like the Kropotkin quotation used:
Personally…I hate these explosions, but I cannot stand as a judge to condemn those who are driven to despair.
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
My one criticism of this section is that it does not question the concept of criminality.
Making Sense of Vera
This section made me laugh several times. I love it. The author is quite critical of Wilde’s first play Vera, and rightly so. However, I do love how Williams puts the play in context and gives it quite a nuanced, complicated reading. Much of this section discusses nihilism and its history within anarchist action.
My main takeaway is the importance of love, joy, pleasure, and compassion being the ground and root for any sort of politics. When even revolutionary politics are dogmatic and lose sight of joy, they become totalitarian and suicidal.
I immediately thought of Gothic Marxism when reading about Stepniak’s A Death for a Death. Oppression and repression are horrific, and when we forget that we are doing what we are doing for people and not just for The Cause, it sentences us to death, both figuratively and literally. We must be explicit when discussing the horrors and terrors of capitalism and imperialism, and we must fight against their goal to kill our souls and our bodies.
I love how this section ends with a discussion of religion, pain, and pleasure. Wilde is very fond of invoking religious imagery when discussing political figures and causes. Nihilists and Christ achieve self-perfection through pain, through suffering. But later, Wilde amends this:
Pain is not the ultimate mode of perfection. It is merely provisional and a protest.
I felt my heart swell at what he said during his trial:
I think that to realise one’s self through pleasure is finer than to realise one’s self through pain. That is the pagan ideal of man realising himself by happiness as opposed to the later and perhaps grander idea of man realising himself by suffering.
Nationalist Contexts and Contentious Identities
I also quite enjoyed this section. I think it’s crucial to discuss the relationship between nationalism and anarchism. And I love the point made here, that nationalism, when done in the spirit of liberty and autonomy, can lead to anarchism, as it did with Wilde, where the nationalism is not rooted in ideas of a pure nation state but of freedom from subjugation and occupation.
This section also contrasts Wilde’s mother’s Irish nationalism and his own nationalism/anarchism.
Many of the sentiments expressed by Wilde and his family seem utopian now, especially that of sympathy, diversity, and intellect defeating ignorance. As we clearly experience now, that is not the case, especially when there is no ideology behind it (or when that ideology is liberalism).
The Critic as Anarchist
Another section that explores the concept of violence and terrorism within anarchism, with a focus on bombings. Bombings in particular show up frequently in Wilde’s work, either as crucial plot points or as witty asides. I love how complicated this book allows this discussion to be. “Is violence in political action good or bad?” It is both, and it is neither. At a certain point, it stops being about doing anything and starts harming the working class, as was done in the senseless bombings of cafes.
But this final section delves into such an interesting perspective here: Anarchist terrorism quickly become symbolic action rather than direct action. Many terrorists said it didn’t matter if they were successful in assassination attempts. What mattered was the propaganda by the deed, of showing the vulnerability of those in power. This naturally evolved to bombings no longer targeting people but symbols such as statues. Militants criticized these actions, for what material good did they do?
But. And here’s where this section got me. Symbolic action is sometimes exactly what is needed to demonstrate the absurdity of capitalism, of imperialism. We must show that it doesn’t make sense. We must show how flimsy it is. These actions are satirical and undercut any reverence for authority.
…to render ridiculous the object of a ridiculous attack, to simultaneously demonstrate the vulnerability of important personages and mock their exaggerated concerns for security.
Truly, this is anarchism utilizing Aesthetics for revolutionary purposes.
This section and chapter ends with a discussion of the relationship between the urge to destroy and the urge to create, a very common point of anarchist thought. The marriage of destruction and construction. Which, of course, makes me think of Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction, a portmanteau of destruction and construction. Most people use deconstruction to mean, I don’t know, being critical about something and inverting it. Or something. I find the current use of deconstruction to be quite banal and meaningless. True deconstruction is a constant play between critique and creation.
Wilde begins to get at this, saying what is old and ugly and ignorant must be destroyed for us to create beauty and art in its place.
Chapter 02: The Basis for a New Civilization: Art and Labor, Artists and Workers, Aestheticism and Socialism
We have now reached a discussion of aesthetics and beauty proper. This section tells us about the aesthetic movement of Wilde’s time, of “art for art’s sake” (which I tend to agree with). It also quotes some of my favorite bits of the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Wilde says that, “all art is quite useless”.
Because this section tears apart any sort of Protestant ethic of work and art. It, like Wilde, rejects that beauty must be for something, that it must produce any value beyond the momentary joy it brings us. Wilde, with his dandy rejections of gender norms and his aesthete refusal to make beauty mean anything, fights against the ideas of work and value of his time.
Finally, Wilde’s views of beauty and luxury serve to reject the notion that poverty is a problem of character and morality. He sees the problem more that a person would try so hard to show that they can live on work and bread alone, that they can live with scraps. Wilde wants champagne and loveliness for everyone, and so do I.
Every Worker an Artist
This section begins to further relate the Aesthetic movement to that of labor. What I most found intriguing was the discussion of Wilde’s opinions on beauty and use. He is not, as many might believe, in favor of the wealthy owning more things that just sit around. Even though it might seem antithetical to “art for art’s sake”, Wilde is for everyday works and especially craftspeople to infuse their labor and everyday objects with beauty. Wilde wants us to use and enjoy our beautiful things, not just to own them.
I loved reading about his American tour and how he connected to the working class during.
Edit: this section also discusses Wilde’s and Morris' idea that no labor that does not bring joy or pleasure should be done. All labor should be pleasurable; if it isn’t, it is nothing but exploitation. This reminds me that I need to read the work of Charles Fourier and his utopian ideas of attractive labor!
Fairy Tale Economics
It was nice in this section to learn the plots of several of Wilde’s fairy tales. I love the connection between the art of story telling and value; Wilde’s father, a physician, would except tales as payment from those who could not afford his services. There is also a distinctly Irish tradition here.
When discussing The Happy Prince, I am reminded of the story of the Buddha, who was guarded from the realities of poverty and age. When he finally saw old men and poor people, he left his life of luxury. He first became an ascetic, but that was also an extreme. It was only when he embraced a middle way that he attained enlightenment.
This leads the section to discuss the role of agitation. I am often skeptical of the notion that exposing people to certain ideas will necessarily change their politics, but I do enjoy how Wilde calls for it here. It can come off as a bit patronizing, but the idea of showing the poor all the beauty and fine things they aren’t given access to or, indeed, are producing but not for themselves, it makes them unsatisfied with their current station. I think the phrase used is sowing discontent.
From Aestheticism to Anarchism
The two key things from this section to me detail how Aestheticism to Wilde was a mode of value. The first thing that demonstrates this is how his views of Individualism and Socialism both agree with and differ from Kropotkin; indeed, the two seem to have influenced each other a great deal. To Wilde, “the point of socialism was as an aid to individualism.” For Kropotkin, “the great cause of humanity, and its struggle for freedom, was what gave individual life its purpose and meaning.” The second is his altruistic nature. This section ends with a story of Wilde literally giving someone the coat off his back, but contrasting it by saying that he would not split his last shilling with a friend. It is a blend of his individualism and how we must have art and beauty in our lives and labor (indeed, we should make our lives art), and also how that then allows us to show this altruism to others.
Chapter 03: Love is Law: The New Woman, the Society Plays, and the Transvaluation of Values
The Woman Question
A very short section about Wilde’s time as editor of a women’s magazine. He changed the focus from just fashion to include political topics and other issues. Sadly, after he left, the magazine went back to its old ways and eventually ended.
Oh, how I adore the society plays. Even tonight, after I finish this book, I will probably watch The Importance of Being Earnest. This section is not so much concerned with anarchist history as it is with showing the amazing trickery and wit Wilde used in his plays. I love the argument that Wilde is at his most subversive and radical when it seems he is adhering to Victorian moral code. He is, in fact, making the very audience criticized in the text complicit in their own humiliation and degredation.
I also love how chaotic Earnest is. Williams calls it almost Dada in its absurdity. It makes fun of everything, and it says almost nothing. Which, of course, is the point. The societal values it makes fun of are absurd and do not deserve to be taken seriously, even in an attempt to tear them down.
Marriage, Family, and Legitimacy
A brief overview of Wilde’s views on marriage, how those views are manifested in the society plays, and how they played out in his own marriage to Constance. I find it interesting that Constance may not have been as radical as Oscar, but she was more politically active than him. Their marriage seems to have been a happy one, and he seems to have been an amazing father.
Chapter 04: A Language of Love: Posing, Speaking, Naming, Queering
This chapter begins by telling us the events leading up to and during Wilde’s three trials. It goes into some discussion of Platonic Love and how some thought its brand of masculine love would be liberatory. Perhaps the author will go into this later in the book, but I wish Platonic Love was discussed alongside masculinism and misogyny. Love between two men is, of course, not inherently misogynist. I’m a gay man who used to live as a woman, after all. But Plato’s Symposium is quite clear in how it relates Platonic Love to intellectual pursuits and excludes women from that.
Names and Laws
This is a discussion I was hoping this book would get into. Anarchism was an early advocate for queerness, and many anarchists themselves were (and are, hello!) queer. But how individual anarchists (and others) came to that position can differ. Often, it was because of the work of sexologists who viewed “same-sex” desire not as individual acts someone did but rather as an immutable identity, what someone was. This certainly has its benefits with regards to organizing, community, and solidarity. However, like any identity-based movement, it is ultimately limited by that fact: it creates false boundaries and must be enforced, somehow.
Wilde was very into the whole Urning thing, and with Platonic Love. But also, he seemed not too fond of that as a medicalization or as anything inherent, essential, or immutable. I found interesting the analysis of Wilde’s story about Shakespeare’s sonnets and how that relates to the concept of a gay genealogy. Which, the story seems to be criticizing! I take from this that it is worthwhile to admire such pursuits, of appreciating that yes, those before me were like me, including those I admire, but to believe in that, to make it something solid, can ultimately be harmful.
I agree completely.
This section gives a small history of the aftermath of Wilde’s trials and imprisonment, as well as how anarchists were early defenders of him.
I want to pull out one point: Wilde’s main regret was that he gave his autonomy, in small pieces, to Bosie, and that he let Bosie’s father get to him, that he went to The State to get him punished. The book quotes anarchist Thomas Bell:
The fatal moment did not occur when Wilde received Queensberry’s card or even when the judge read out his sentence. It was the moment when “Oscar Wilde, the rebel, appeared in court to protest that he was a respectable citizen, whose respectability was not to be attacked.” Had he “boldly acknowledged the truth of the accusation and asserted his right to live according to his nature,” he would not have avoided the stigma of scandal and might still have gone to prison, but “he could have retained his own self-respect intact.” Bell argues that Wilde’s politics bring a special significance to this story: “it is not merely that Wilde was an Anarchist; it is that the tragedy of his life cannot be understood without understanding that.”
Chapter 05: Refuse to Broken by Force: Prison Writing and Anti-Prison Writing
A Criminal with a Noble Face
Only one paragraph, a quick story of Wilde in America touring a prison.
The Poet as Prisoner
I wept reading this.
A description of prison life for Wilde, who was an abolitionist to the point he couldn’t refrain from criticizing the institution of incarceration in his plea letters.
I wept when it talked about cutting his hair, and his reaction to that, the most, for I, too, have long, dark, wavy hair.
The Prisoner as Poet
Perhaps I was a bit hasty in calling Wilde an abolitionist. I think perhaps he was, but after he was released from prison, he did push for reform. But, the reform was seen as a beginning, not the ultimate solution. The system should not exist, but in the meantime, let’s make it better while we work to dismantle it.
Wilde also allowed his heart to be broken, to experience suffering and sorrow intensely, rather than to let his heart harden and turn to apathy.
The chapter ends with a short analysis of “That Ballad of Reading Gaol.” I love how it discusses how Wilde uses POV to make us question who we relate to in the poem: the murderer, the prisoners, or the wardens? And, also, that it does not care for whether or not something is lawful, but rather, it cares for how people suffer. Crime and punishment are constructed and individual.
Chapter 06: The Eternal Rebel: Outcast and Icon, in Exile and Utopia
This ends on a high note, which is good because the prison chapter made me really sad. The fact that I am now two glasses of absinthe in only makes my emotions more potent, as Wilde would want, as I finish this book.
This final chapter starts by telling us that Wilde’s tragedy did not defeat him. In exile, he still enjoyed all the pleasures of life he did before, just with less money and access to capital. But he still drank, and had lots of sex, and enjoyed art, and all that he did before. Williams makes a good point by saying that both devotees and punishers want to see Wilde martyred, either to show that his punishment was wrong (the former) or that his wins were wrong (the latter). But we must resist the urge to crucify him, to paint this false narrative of a broken man.
Finally, I like how this book ends on a discussion of utopia. For Wilde, it is not a destination. Utopia is, rather, utopias, in that once we achieve one, we must look at the horizon and see something better. We must always be imperfect because that means we can continue to make the world a better place. We can’t stagnate.
For Wilde, it didn’t matter if something was impossible or unlikely. He still expected it anyway and acted towards it. I like this quality.
How do we know if something is impossible unless we try it, after all. We must always demand better.