Well, I finished the collection of Wilde essays. Not only was it increasingly easier to get through as it went along; an almost-constant question also began to lodge itself in my brain. Namely, what would a conversation between Wilde and Nietzsche have looked like? The query really took on urgency when I came across this sentence: “… the contemplative life, the life that has for its aim not doing but being, and not being merely, but becoming— that is what the critical spirit can give us.”* It was the “becoming” there that struck me– because so much of what Nietzsche wrote about was “becoming who one is.” The two men died in the same year, but my pure speculation is that neither probably read the other’s work, especially given the fact that poor old Friedrich spent his last eleven years in madness-induced silence.
I was relieved to know that more than a few others are interested in at least a variation on that question; a quick search yielded plenty of published offerings. Until I can check them out, I’ll set down a few preliminary thoughts, admittedly limited by my relatively narrow exposure to Wilde.
First: the matter of style. For both men, it’s essential, and requires claiming one’s own individuality and rejecting conformity with a variety of concerns. But I’m not sure we can easily say each author meant the same thing by it. For Nietzsche, having the strength to stand on one’s own meant, among other things, blasting through expectations of written style. Sure, his aphorisms had predecessors in masters of the genre such as LaRochefoucauld– but when you’re running in a scholarly milieu (at least until you ditch that, too, as he did), deviating from standard form is a bold and risky move. Wilde’s celebration of and involvement in aestheticism seems too “social” for someone like Nietzsche, who unlike his contemporary, did not run in fashionable circles. Even while Oscar was pleasantly scandalizing people with the unique self he presented through plays, wit, and dress; and even as he called for changes in attitude and thought; I don’t get the sense that he would have gone in for Nietzsche’s demand for a revaluation of all values. Still, Wilde’s doubt that “we have ever seen the full expression of a personality, except on the imaginative plane of art,” would most likely have gotten a nod from his German contemporary.**
Not that Nietzsche wasn’t witty; pick up anything starting around Human, All Too Human, and any doubt about that will immediately be erased. (Most of his chapter headings in Ecce Homo, including “Why I Am So Clever,” seem to be poking some seriously dark and critical fun at a world that’s closing in on him.) But even at his most apparently angriest, he seems to hold an earnestly committed faith even in the decadent whiners he takes such pains to condemn. Things for him were always at such a state of emergency that even the lightness and dancing he wanted everyone to be doing had something intense about them. Wilde, on the other hand, even when he’s being deadly serious, still seems to present his thoughts in the arch manner of a Louis XIV courtier.
Then: the question of democracy. Wilde doesn’t say much directly about it in this collection, but in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” he states that “democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”*** So many of his essays are also criticizing public taste and behavior, and it seems that democracy is implicated in those criticisms. I’m guessing Nietzsche would have agreed with Wilde’s sentiment, but, strangely enough, would have done so with a little less cynicism. The German’s disgust with democracy and socialism (the latter of which Wilde was for) lay not in equal treatment for all, but in the resentment that springs up between free individuals when one person gets more of something than someone else. Starting out from the same conditions isn’t the problem here; it’s the sense of resentment and jealousy certain people feel when, opposed to those certain people, one individual has a greater amount of skill at some activity, or another individual works especially hard and reaps a big reward for it. The resentful bunch will demand that no one receive more– of anything, whether talent or anything else– than the next person, and will use democracy to level the entire population to the same state of stagnant mediocrity. Nietzsche envisions a democracy of the future, freed of this resentment, and so also freed for achievement and self-actualization (although he wouldn’t use that term) for everyone.
There is, of course, the third question of art, but I’m running out of steam and time, so I’ll just say that I’m pretty sure Wilde, with his assertion that art is non-rational and immoral (and of course, he’ll mean something very particular here), would have been down with Nietzsche’s ruminations in The Birth of Tragedy, with his celebration of the right balance of the Dionysian and Apollonian that makes for great art.
Maybe more to come on these topics. Whether or not that happens, though, I’m beyond pleased that Intentions picked up speed and interest– and that I found another possible connection to my beloved curmudgeon, Nietzsche.
* “The Critic as Artist,” in Intentions and Other Writings (Garden City, NY: Dolphin/Doubleday, no publication year), 107.
** “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” in Intentions, 199-200.
*** “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” in Intentions, 204.