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The Soul of Man (Author: Oscar Wilde)



OSCAR WILDE's writings require, I have often observed elsewhere, no introductions. Even De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the two more personal works from his pen, explain themselves and thereby defeat the ingenuity of editors or commentators. Herein lies, at least one cause of the author's extraordinary popularity in countries separated from England by wider gulfs than those of geography and language. The veritable child of his age, Wilde is one of the least provincial writers of the nineteenth century. No special knowledge of that age is necessary for appreciating either his style or his humour. He shares the prerogative

of all writers who survive the obloquy or adulation of their own period. The universality of his approach to art, literature, and life, assures for him, I believe, the attention of posterity, provided that posterity will have any curiosity concerning the literary expression of the last century. I remember being told by a sympathetic man of letters, shortly after Wilde died in 1900, that none of his books would ever be read in the future and that none of his plays would ever be performed again. This opinion was confirmed by a prominent public official, whose knowledge of human nature and the value of literary property ought to have been extensive. At that time only one or two of Wilde's published dramas were to be found in London bookshops; some of the other works being surreptitiously sold in pirated editions. There was, however, one exception. The


copyright of The Soul of Man belonged to Mr Arthur Humphreys, from whom copies could always be obtained. Not unpardonably I regarded this circumstance as a symbol of the revived interest in the other works, so soon to falsify the unfortunate prophecies I have quoted. In 1901, the year when Salomé was first produced in Berlin, a friend wrote to me from Russia that he had purchased in the bazaar at Nijni Novgorod copies of The Soul of Man in four different languages.

With those of a well-known tragic figure in history it may well be claimed that Wilde's message and appeal were addressed to the wider theatre of Europe where they have met with a response such as has been accorded to very few other English authors.

In 1907-8 in order to make complete the Library Edition of Wilde, it was necessary to lease copyrights not belonging to


myself. Licences were, of course, obtained from the different owners. But Mr Arthur Humphreys most generously permitted me to include The Soul of Man without the usual quid pro quo. I have only consented to add this superfluous preface on condition that he allows me to mention a kindness which must serve as the single possible excuse for my present intrusion.

Unique among Wilde's writings it is no exaggeration to say that The Soul of Man is unique in English literature. At least there is no more comprehensive essay with which I am acquainted. Without being in the least desultory, it touches, though ever so slightly, almost every subject on which educated people think when they think at all. And every subject is illuminated by a phrase which haunts the memory. Indeed, many of these phrases


have been boldly appropriated without acknowledgment or ‘socialised’ by some of our leading platform orators. It may interest some of the author's admirers to note that in this essay he acknowledges, what in his previous writings he pretended to ignore—the potentialities of science. In the old æsthetic days, under the influence of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, Wilde affected to depreciate the debt of humanity to modern science. Art was more or less to solve everything. Here he recognises that science, not art, is going to cure consumption and solve the problem of misery. Indeed, his appreciation of life and its issues, his perception that art and literature are component parts of life and not the whole of life, account in some measure for the eagerness with which the present and younger generation read Wilde, when the fame of his more esteemed contemporaries


is already a little dimmed and their canons of art, literature and life are being readjusted.

That Wilde preaches orthodox Socialism would, I think, be difficult to maintain. He appears to be playing with an idea like the guests of Plato's Symposium. He unlocks the door of his fantasy when he says ‘Utopia is the one country at which humanity is always landing.’ Nevertheless, Socialists of the present day have hailed, I am told, The Soul of Man, as a quite possible manifesto; while Tories and Liberals have not hesitated to quote the severe criticisms on democracy, even in the House of Commons. In the vindication of Individualism there is, I venture to think, a not entirely fantastic answer to some of the social and economic questions which disturb every thoughtful member of the community. The intellectual affinity


between Nietzsche, whom Wilde never read, and the philosophy of his essay will be obvious to all students of the great German thinker.

Wilde used to say that a work of art was a mirror in which every man saw his own image. The Soul of Man, like its author, has many facets, and illustrates the well-known principle that the angle of incident is equal to the angle of reflexion.