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Oscar Wilde in the 1990s: The Critic as Creator.

Oscar Wilde in the 1990s: The Critic as Creator. By MELISSA KNOX. (Studies in English and American Literature, Linguistics, and Culture: Literary Criticism in Perspective) Woodbridge and Rochester, NY: Camden House. 2001. xxiv + 206 pp. 40 [pounds sterling]; $65. ISBN: 1-57113-042-x.

In 'The Critic as Artist', as Melissa Knox recalls in this partisan survey of criticism from the last decade, 'Wilde said [...] that he lived in terror of not being misunderstood'. Crucially, Knox elides the fact that Wilde actually has Gilbert say this to Ernest. Wilde's statement is of course mediated through a persona, much as his most deceptively earnest remarks are often filtered through the thick wall of his myriad-minded personalities. Thus Knox's telling slippage may be more symptomatic of the pitfalls of her preferred method of 'psychoanalytic biography' than any implicit 'fear of self-revelation' in Wilde himself (p. 25).

It is the holistic potential of the biographical approach which most appeals to Knox. She violently rejects any criticism that views Wilde in relation to a particular cause, whether it be Irishness, queerness, aesthetics, or literary theory, since this assumes that Wilde's identities 'can be separated, which they cannot' and leads to work which is in her view 'uninformative, jargon-ridden, or plagued by ideologies'. It is her self-confessed aim 'to reveal the affinity of the best criticism to Wilde's own critical standards', and to champion those critics who like Wilde 'were willing to abandon logic for intuition' (p. 30, pp. xx-xxi). For Knox, the best critics are not those who are merely analytical, nor even those who are empathetic, but nothing less than those who try to mimic 'Wilde's emotions [...] his soul'. The successful critic becomes Wilde, as though confessing the need for a retrospective transference of sympathies--'we feel his affinity for us' (pp. xvi-xvii). Wilde's writing becomes the record of the critic's own soul.

Several of Knox's local observations about recent criticism do indeed provide useful correctives, as when she notes how critics have underestimated the comedy in much of Wilde's words, or have overplayed his misogyny or his failings as a systematic thinker. Yet her rigid championing of what she fondly calls 'speculative sleuthing' (p. 42) often seems inflexible and too readily dismissive. 'The public perception of Wilde as a plagiarist or a sodomitical seducer', she pronounces, 'throws no light on his inner world'. Perhaps, but it can tell us much about the context in which his creative processes evolved. Knox opts instead for what can come across as an over-romantic notion of a misunderstood Wilde, who 'intended above all to understand himself, but could not' (p. 71). She is drawn, not unpromisingly, to the similarities between Wilde and Freud and sees this as the key to interpreting Wilde's sexuality, but this in practice leads to some rather unconvincing pop psychology, as when speculating that 'imagining [his wife] Constance as a boy may have been the only possible means for him to experience any sexual arousal with her' (p. 15), or when she asserts that Wilde 'had probably agreed to infantile sexual play' (p. 180) with his ill-fated sister Isola.

Knox skips lightly over some important critical texts, giving a brief assessment of their quality, yet gets mired in what amounts to little more than selective digests of others. Perhaps a more impartial survey of a wider range of criticism from the 1990s might have produced a more valuable resource. The book is also afflicted by some odd verbal ticks. Richard Ellmann's biography of Wilde is repeatedly referred to as 'masterful', while anything out of favour is rebuffed with the comment that 'this is hardly news'. Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore (one suspects to their own wry approval rather than chagrin) are dismissed as 'the trendy critics' (p. 63). Dollimore's discussion of Wilde and Gide is chided because his 'rhetoric is like cold water splashed on hot lovers' (p. 105), as though Knox is seeking a steamy biographical romance rather than any analytical gender criticism stripped of hormonal thrills. Sinfield is accused of 'unclear, jargon-laden writing', 'faulty reasoning', and 'high fashion critical cliche' (pp. 119, 122). Ed Cohen's work on male sexualities is classed among 'some of the worst writing in academia'. Knox has the misguided self-assurance to psychoanalyse Cohen himself as 'one who feels lost, uncertain about himself and who he should be' (pp. 110-11). By contrast, biographic criticism is always seen as 'informative', 'valuable', 'fascinating', even 'worthy' (pp. 173-76).

Knox may well be correct in her observation that Wilde, spontaneous to the last, refused to be limited to one ideology. Yet she too has her own agenda of 'nookand- cranny work', the 'digging up' of biographical titbits (p. 144), to advance. Wilde himself, contrary to his public image, knew when to value the Arnoldian qualities of restraint and indifference in his critical writings. It is this, and not his emotional legacy, which may prove of most lasting value to his modern critics.


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Author:Kneale, Nick
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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