Not So Wilde

June 16, 2005

Our long national nightmare is over ... at least until next time. The trial of Michael Jackson has now moved into the phase of "post-production," as they call it in Hollywood. Now work is under way on the voice-overs and flashbacks -- and the crews are getting ready to start broadcasting the next celebrity legal circus.

On Monday -- just a day before the verdict was announced -- Elaine Showalter published a short essay in the Los Angeles Times comparing Jackson's trial to the legal ordeal of Oscar Wilde in 1895. "Wilde too was a celebrity, as a writer and as a performer," she wrote. "Like Jackson, Wilde was seemingly brought down by self-destructive acts." In each case, "accusations of homosexual pedophilia have struck a deep chord of moral outrage."

"Wilde," according to Showalter, "was convicted of what the Victorians, with their gifts for euphemism, called 'gross indecency.' Despite the specific charges against him, gross indecency also seems to be the underlying accusation in the Jackson trial."

It's by no means clear that the term "gross indecency" could be regarded as euphemistic, even in the Victorian context. By contrast, Wilde's reference during the trial to "the love that dare not speak its name" was a memorable case of euphemism yielding eloquence.

The problem with Showalter's essay turns on more than semantics, however. Sure, there are points of similarity between the trial, but even a brief comparison of them shows that the differences are huge. Some currents in American culture might be dubbed Victorian -- if only through an abuse of analogy. The real connection between Wilde and Jackson is a little less obvious, though, and perhaps more worrisome.

Now, to be honest, I did not follow the recent trial very closely. The nature of this kind of spectacle is that, unless you make every effort to remove yourself from the "flow" of current media, a certain amount of information imposes itself on your awareness, come what may.

The Wilde trial fascinated its public because it was the revelation (a momentary glimpse) of something ordinarily hidden. The Jackson trial, by contrast, was an instance of what Jean Baudrillard has dubbed "the obscene" in the postmodern sense -- a mode in which nothing is concealed, in which every sign or bit of information manages to circulate. ("Obscenity begins," as Baudrillard puts it, "when all becomes transparence and immediate visibility, when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication.")

Reading the transcripts of Oscar Wilde's trials (there were three of them), one thing you soon notice is that his creative work and his vision of the world were under just as much scrutiny as his private life. If anything, his aesthetic sensibility (in particular, his insistence that art and morality had nothing to do with one another) was slightly more horrifying to the authorities than his sexual tastes. The power of Wilde's art to corrupt the minds of the young incensed the Victorians even more than what he did with any given teenage male prostitute.

The standoff between the attorney Edward Carson's high-minded outrage and Wilde's defense of art-for-art's-sake makes for a transcript that reads like an excerpt from one of Wilde's plays.

Carson: A perverted novel might make for a good book?

Wilde: I don't know what you mean by a "perverted" novel.

Carson: Then I will suggest Dorian Gray as open to the interpretation of being such a novel?

Wilde: That could only be to brutes and illiterates. The views of Philistines on art are incalculably stupid.

Carson: An illiterate person reading Dorian Gray might consider it such a novel?

Wilde: The views of illiterates on art are unaccountable. I am concerned only with my view of art. I don't care twopence what other people think of it.

Carson: The majority of persons would come under your definition of Philistines and illiterates?

Wilde: I have found wonderful exceptions.

Carson: Do you think that the majority of people live up to the position you are giving us?

Wilde: I am afraid they are not cultivated enough.

Carson: Not cultivated enough to draw the distinction between a good book and a bad book?

Wilde: Certainly not.

Carson: The affection and love of the artist of Dorian Gray might lead an ordinary individual to believe that it might have a certain tendency?

Wilde: I have no knowledge of the views of ordinary individuals.

Carson: You did not prevent the ordinary individual from buying your book?

Wilde: I have never discouraged him.

Were sparks this brilliant ever struck during the past few months? Did the relationship between Jackson's art (or entertainment, rather) and his life ever come up for questioning?

Who can doubt that, were Jackson to announce his intention to take up residency in Massachusetts so as to marry a longtime boyfriend of suitable age, the response of most fans would be to send a card expressing best wishes?

Let's not pretend that nothing has changed in 110 years. I bet Hallmark has the design all worked out.

Wilde was accused and convicted of defying the norms of his day. That was the source of the case's resonance, at the time. And Wilde himself embraced (in however complex and ironic a manner) the idea that he had violated the established code. Later, when asked how he survived prison, he responded: "I was buoyed up with a sense of guilt."

Today Wilde looks heroic. What to his contemporaries would have seemed like incorrigibility, we now honor as fidelity to his own nature.

In any case, the hold of Wilde's case on the public mind was -- and still is -- a matter of his grand transgression. It bears scarcely any resemblance to the fascination evoked by Michael Jackson, who embodies something quite different: regression. His retreat to a childlike state appears to be so complete as to prove almost unimaginable, except, perhaps, to a psychiatrist.

Freud wrote of a neverending struggle between the pleasure principle (the ruling passion of the infant's world) and the reality principle (which obliges us to sustain a certain amount of repression, since the world is not particularly friendly to our immediate urges).

Wilde was the most eloquent defender that the pleasure principle ever had: His aesthetic doctrine held that we ought to transform daily life into a kind of art, and so regain a kind of childlike wonder and creativity, free from pedestrian distractions.

Like all such utopian visions, this one tends to founder on the problem that someone will, after all, need to clean up. The drama of Michael Jackson's trial came from its proof that -- even with millions of dollars and a staff of housekeepers to keep it at bay -- the reality principle does have a way of reasserting itself.

And now that the trial is over, perhaps it's appropriate to recall the paradoxical question Wilde once asked someone about a mutual friend: "When you are alone with him, does he take off his face and reveal his mask?"

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