The Modern Art of Influence and the Spectacle of Oscar Wilde

S.I. Salamensky begins her excellent addition to Wilde scholarship with the humility of one contributing to an already substantial body of work, starting with the straightforward question, “Why Wilde?” Why, she asks, is Oscar Wilde still subject to such fascination and attention? This question, Salamensky argues, can be answered with an in-depth investigation of the burgeoning modern era of which Wilde was emblematic. In an increasingly modern age, Salamensky argues, Wilde wrote about and grappled with “the nature of identity…the location of cultural power” and the idea of personal performance in everyday life (2-3). To best understand Oscar Wilde as a writer, a revolutionary, a queer advocate, a “sinner,” etc., Salamensky sets out in The Modern Art of Influence and the Spectacle of Oscar Wilde to study and understand Wilde as both the public personae and cultural object, through “his work and life, and through treatments of that work and life, in his time as well as our own” and his legacy in the dramatic and modernist traditions (3). Salamensky divides her ambitious project into four separate chapters (“Ways,” “Women,” “Words,” and “Worlds.”), each dedicated to a different approach to Oscar Wilde and a study of his influence.

In chapter one, “Wilde Ways: The Modern Art of Influence and the ‘Professor of Aesthetics,'” Salamensky focuses on a young Oscar Wilde, his growing and developing aesthetic values of beauty, and his necessity for art in everyday life. Salamensky takes time to discuss the social commentary surrounding Wilde and multiple journalists’ caricatures, which painted young Wilde as “an outlandish and outrageous entertainer” rather than an artist (9). From these beginnings, Salamensky juxtaposes Wilde-as-celebrity with Wilde-as-author, placing equal weight on the impact each had on society. To better understand Wilde’s influence, Salamensky looks at three of his literary peers: Julia Constance Fletcher, Rhoda Broughton, and Henry James. Throughout these diligently documented and numerous encounters, Wilde imparts on these authors not only his magnetism as a literary figure, but his notions of performativity in the novel. That is, Wilde encouraged a removal of the “staginess” of writing and a move toward a “page-to-stage” policy in which theatricality is replaced with reality and modern storytelling (19-20). With this foundation, Salamensky moves forward to look at Wilde’s individual works more closely.

Chapter two, “Wilde Women: Salomé and the Spectacle of the Transgendered Jewess Hysteric” moves away from current Wilde scholarship. Salamensky tackles Wilde’s most difficult and controversial work, Salomé to unwrap the stigma surrounding the text. While acknowledging its artistic scope, Salamensky points to the difficulties of the play, citing “its biblical theme, open sexuality, extreme violence and florid phraseology,” and concludes Salomé is  an outlier among Wilde’s other works (36). But with a close reading, Salamensky takes the time to cite the similarities in classical focus, aesthetic themes, and other “modernist elements” that are rarely noted betwee Salomé and Wilde’s more canonical works. From here, Salamesky turns to an in-depth discussion of the origins and implications of Salomé. She argues that Wilde’s anti-heroine’s actions are a result of the “constructs of the Jew and studies of female hysterics previously unacknowledged by readers and theatregoers alike” (50). This reading of Salomé as anachronistic and misunderstood offers an explanation for the play’s lack of scholarship or attention, and this impressive chapter presents a altogether unexplored area of Wilde’s work and its implication on Jewish studies. Further, Salamensky implies that there is more work to be done in linking the artists, women, Jews, and multiple “others” in Wilde’s works with the ostracized author who created them.

From here, Salamensky discusses the functions of modernism in chapter three, “Wilde Words: Money, Morality, Metaphysics, and the ‘Modern’ Man.” Salamensky begins her discussion with a thorough background of modernism, what it meant then in the late 1800’s, and what it means now. Salamesky attests to the flexibility and instability of modernism as a concept, while chronicling Wilde’s definitions of modernism as a he grew and changed as a writer. She writes, “Wilde mostly made up ‘the modern’ as he went along, applying its concepts to…economics, morality, sexuality, self-identity and experience” when they were most convenient (74-75). She situates Wilde’s modernism as an oscillating tool used when he chose. After studying Wilde’s interpretations of modernism as related through letters, interviews, etc., Salamensky concludes that language is the one unifying source for Wilde’s different methods of modernism, and uses his four “society comedies” (The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windemere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband) as prime examples for understanding as readers how Wilde used modernist tools. Salamensky focuses on each play in succession, paying particular attention to the importance of dialogue over plot, linguistic attachments, and characters who, “rather than talking themselves into character, they talk themselves out of it” in a break from the tradition of Ibsen ad his contemporaries (106-107). The definition constructed at the end of the chapter is both wide-reaching and flexible, extending (by Salamesky’s examples) to current interpretations of Ernest broadcast and filmed and even to episodes of The Jersey Shore, suggesting that today’s audiences are making Wilde modern once again. This is not only a detailed example of the continuing cultural scholarship left to do in terms of Wilde’s work, it also helps to position Wilde as a modern icon whose work has maintained its strength over time.

In her final chapter, “Wilde Worlds: The ‘Trick of Talk’ and the Magicking of the Material Body,” Salamensky attempts to reconcile two different Wildes, one being the witty rhetorician and author, and the second an early icon for gay rights. Backed by intense scholarship and research, Salamensky situates Wilde as both a mythic character and an infamously-famous author who struggles with two identities. By looking at Wilde’s own texts and those of his biographers, Salamensky links Wilde in what she calls “word and body.” In other words, the trend in understanding Wilde is as “a dramatic fiction despite inconvenient truths and discrepancies that intersect” (122). Salamensky departs from this trend most notably in this chapter by discussing Wilde in terms of Dorian Grey, and using the novel as a tool for understanding Wilde’s biography. Salamensky draws the conclusion, “[t]he most productive strategy for approaching Dorian Grey, as a literary work and a cultural object, might be neither to deny the presence of codes directly relevant to queer sexuality nor [to] treat the tale as a mere cipher for it” (126). Rather, she suggests these readings work in tandem as a way to understand the author, his work, and his trial. Salamensky uses this reading to explore Wilde’s trial as an proclamation of aesthetic value where both the rhetorician and the advocate work together.

As Salamensky concludes her study on Wilde, she asks a second question of herself and her readers: What do we want from Wilde? After offering her readers four varied, innovative, and complex readings of the same author through the lenses of a growing and shifting modern age, Salamensky concludes that, “there are, perhaps, as many Wildes as we want there to be” (155). From her meticulously researched, carefully crafted work, the reader is left not only with a stellar overview of the historiography of Wilde’s works, but with a call to continue Wilde scholarship with the same diligence and insight as Salamensky and her predecessors, and to continue unearthing the nature of identity in Wilde’s works, while remembering to keep asking why.

Overall, this text makes an excellent contribution to the preexisting discourse on the many versions of Wilde with which we are familiar. Further, Salamensky’s meticulous documentation and research encourages interdisciplinary studies of Wilde that remain underexplored as of yet, but ripe with potential.

The Modern Art of Influence and the Spectacle of Oscar Wilde

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