Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Brotherhood of One


The importance of Oscar Wilde as a writer has been somewhat obscured by some well-meaning admirers who have enlisted him in the cause of gay rights. His famous trials, which effectively destroyed him, were comparable to Socrates': instead of making him drink hemlock they put him to hard labor in Reading Gaol. His last years in exile merely showed that it was, in fact, a death sentence. Homosexuality remained a crime in England until the 1960s. Aside from his wit, which was so often lavished on Victorian trivialities, he proved, in his essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism", that he was as fearless with ideas as he would later be with barristers.

A great deal of Wilde's wit came across in paradoxes. One of my favorites is, "All women become like their mothers: that is their tragedy. No man does: that is his." He once wrote:

"The way of the paradox is the way of truth. To test reality we must see it on the tight-rope. When the verities become acrobats we can judge them."

Without being a professed Socialist himself, Wilde was intrigued by its potential, even if he had a quite personal vision of its ultimate effects on society as a whole. If a Socialist were asked to give the most important justification for the establishment of his system, he would probably say that it was ultimately for the betterment of man - not materially of course but morally. Men and women, being freed from their subjection to and exploitation of one another (which is a direct result of capitalism) will finally be able to create a good society in which free and equal human beings cooperate with one another.

But the way Wilde saw it, the achievement of Socialism is not desirable so that altruism can be made the centerpiece of society, so that everyone can bask in a common goodwill and human brotherhood can become a reality instead of a dimly conceived dream. Not at all. For Wilde,

"The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes."

Wilde realized that:

"The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease."

Everyone of my generation has seen the "hideous" news reports about famines that threaten, and succeed in killing, thousands of people every few years. They have succeeded in creating in us a compunction that our parents didn't possess, of feeling responsible for the suffering of people who aren't as lucky as we are on the other side of the earth. So we contribute money to charities, which of course provide no solutions to the problem.

Nearly two years ago, in a post I called Charity, I made the point that "The fact is there would be no need for charity if we had an economy that made such rapacious, insane acquisitiveness as Buffett & Co. have practiced all their lives impossible."

Wilde says much the same thing (but more eloquently):

"The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins."

But Wilde's vision of Socialism is unorthodox and often unrealistic. At times, when he discusses work and the freedom from work that he believes Socialism promises, he sounds like Eric Hoffer's remark about the modern "worldwide revulsion for work. To the new generation, la dolce vita is not a life of plenty but a life of as little effort as possible.

Wilde believed that some time in the future all menial work will be performed by machines, and men and women would be completely free from toil, suffering, and pain. He seems to think that work itself, and not just the motive behind it, will be eradicated under Socialism. I don't think that any socialism thinks this way. Work, which is mostly mindless toil, even for the middle class, will attain its true purpose once the motive behind it (personal gain) is changed. Work, I think, is essential to living when it places the individual in the position of realizing that he is not simply an individual, but a part of a huge organism that is more than the sum of its parts. Soldiers find this out, whether they serve in combat or not. And its why they are willing to lay down their lives. They recognize probably more directly than anyone else the meaning of human brotherhood.

Wilde concludes his essay in quite uncharted territory.

"It will, of course, be said that such a scheme as is set forth here is quite unpractical, and goes against human nature. This is perfectly true. It is unpractical, and it goes against human nature. This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it. For what is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The conditions will be done away with, and human nature will change. The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it. The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development."

Wilde even defends his "scheme" against the charge of Utopianism:

"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias."

Certainly Wilde believed in progress. But it took more than a hundred years after his death for an sitting American president to express the opinion that gay people should have equal rights in marriage. Wilde, who was destroyed because his was the "love that dare not speak its name", would've been heartened today.

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