Self Inconization: Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde

Before MTV and Hollywood, there were superstars, rebel bad boys who captured the world’s attention. Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde created themselves as symbols for their generations with no help from the Internet, TV, or movies. They self-consciously created themselves before more familiar figures like Andy Warhol were born.

Wilde is a patron saint of this blog not simply because he was an clever writer and interesting literary critic. He created a view of aesthetics that determined his life down to the boutonniere, and he did it so brilliantly that turn-of-the-century Britain and Europe watched, scandalized and delighted. His society plays inverted social mores, but so cleverly it was hard to realize it had happened. And they lionized him, this pudgy aesthete from Ireland, of all barbaric lands. Love, that Achilles heel of us all, is what brought his ascendancy to a crashing halt, when his lover Bosie got him involved in an infamous trial of homo sexuality, which did not go well, leading to his ruin, imprisonment and penniless death in exile on the continent. But prior to this low, Wilde achieved heights of fame that were improbable considering his origins, and lived out his convictions regarding art and life that were ‘moral’ in the highest degree. He champions artifice in The Decay of Lying, saying “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” and in he indeed wrote what he became to the public, as his plays were used as evidence against in his trial. He considers “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.”

Paradoxically my other patron saint, Byron, held quite the opposite view. (Now–I know what you are thinking: these two dandies on the British 19th c. scene were both sensational and scandalous public figures and writers who, despite all their endeavors, dies rather unheroically in exile and out of favor. Their ascents to greatness were similarly unpredictable from their humble origins, and displayed a remarkable degree of ingenuity and ambition. And yes, of course, that even as they wrote within the Romantic and Decadent movements, scholars now consider their work to make stylistic leaps that distinguish them from those circles. One might also say they had extreme temperaments and the ability to behave with extreme selfishness. These bad boys were the ultimate rebels for their times.) Byron, living 80 years before Wilde, thought writing was secondary to living, “The great object in life is Sensation—to feel that we exist, even though in pain.” Life was a much higher thing, and “scribbling,” as he called his work was merely a side item to living.

Art into life, or life into art: it amounts to the same thing. Wilde struggled for impersonal objectivity, and does not mention himself. However, he lived his life as art, so that in his writing he, rather than any imaginary characters, is what the reader sees. Byron said that “To withdraw myself from myself has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all.” By the time he wrote his masterpiece Don Juan, he had taken life–his life as narrator–and injected it into his poem at every possible opportunity. The almost megalomaniac way the put themselves consistently in their audience’s face is how they achieved super stardom.

The confluence of life and art brings the reader back to the same thing: the author. The author always dominates the work, and his legacy haunts his every word, as each of them very carefully like to manipulate. It is a fascinating thing to watch. A parallel to such success would be Warhol, another self-made icon.

One thought on “Self Inconization: Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde

  1. I think you need to say more about Warhol. As an artist, he did a lot to both glorify the celebrity of a person as well as devalue the role of author, or rather expose the author as a bit of a sham. He is probably something of an antithesis to your two romantic heroes who established a cult of self that is remarkably different from deadpan Warhol and his Factory (though ultimately, I think its fair to say that the cult of self links all three as icons of their time).

    I do think you’re right to pinpoint a dandy for every generation. What about Barney? I He’s the right kind of narcissist for your interests.

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