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The subconscious of the dandy
By Maria Pia Bobbioni

“I want to make of my life itself a work of art”

Oscar Wilde's phrase “I want to make of my life itself a work of art” offers interesting ground for reflection; while seeming to smack of artifice, it actually contains a complex articulate line of thoughts, emotionally highly charged and provocative. Instinctively one might think of it coming from a mythomaniac, a whimsical person without much sense of reality, handicapped by an excessive distance from normal life. This, however, would not be the interpretation I would like to follow. I am not to diagnose our Oscar. Instead, I try to highlight some aspects of the author, of his language, of an “intellectual epoch”, so that, on leaving this room, something for ourselves remains, there is, for our desire of life.

Lacan said: “The subconscious is structured like a language”1. Considering Wilde's numerous witticism and wisecracks, he might appear as someone who allows his instincts to freely realise themselves. Reading Wilde's writings, whether with sagacity or admiration, is not such an easy task. We are constantly swayed between the desire to be seduced - which is, indeed, what our dandy did all his life, seduced and be seduced - in a strong need to maintain a distance, to stay out, not be devoured by his complete exuberance, so unlimited that it touches on destruction and on ruin. Exuberance: a word that is profoundly related to Wilde, and one of the key words of the intellectual and human itinerary of the dandy as such.

The Clever Dress  

Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 and died in 1900; a short time chronologically, but dense with activity. His great project was to render life aesthetic. It was an active supporter of the Aesthetic Movement which, having developed in the second half of the 19th century in England and Europe, advocated a lifestyle more in tune with peoples physical and mental health. The invention of reform clothing became a focal point for the intelligentsia of this period. Wilde himself designed reform clothing for his wife Constance; garments that drew inspiration from the freedom of gesture of Greek sculpture, and did away with corsets and all that rigidity already contested during the Enlightenment. Wilde “invented” artistic clothes: clothes not intended as fashionable, but as historically significant in their own right and superbly daring. He had garments made which suited his various enterprises. And one of these suits was the direct result of a dream:

“He had had a dream…in which a ghostly personage appeared in a coat of shape and colour that somehow reminded him of a violoncello. On waking he hastily sketched out what he had seen and brought the drawing to his tailor. The coat was cut to meet the dream specification: in some lights it looked bronze, in others red, and the back of it…resembled the outline of a cello”2.  

The Style of the Dandy  

His style of dressing conveys an air of disdain. This is an important word for Wilde's chain of subconscious meaning, the synthesis of a subjective component. The term `disdain' (It. `sprezzatura') contains the opposing aspects of `appreciation' and `contempt', which carries it within the domain of aesthetic ethics. According to lexicological sources (e.g. the “Dizionario degli Accademici della Crusca”)3 and other texts, the word has its origin in the 16th century culture; it figures prominently in Baldassare Castiglione's “Il Cortigiano” (Sir Thomas Hoby, in his perennial influential English adaptation of this book, had arbitrarily defined `sprezzatura' as “recklessness”). But its roots maybe be traced back to the Latin depretio and in pretium (to have value, and to be appreciated), which leads us to Ovid's reflection: “Nunc et pretium in pretio dat census onores”. To appreciate, to be praised, to consider and to be considered praiseworthy. If to honor means to appreciate, then honor is appreciation. The other aspect involves disdain; a form, a style, an attitude of willful and ostentatious neglect assumed by someone who considers himself a master in doing something. Sometimes, this `something' is called art. Wilde's “dressing with elegant disdain” opens up the way towards a style that seeks appreciation for its own sake, presupposing, in authorising itself to do so, a certain implicit superiority. Disdain is one of the characteristics of the adventurous spirit, of the “reckless” hero, gifted with the kind of isolating power which takes him beyond his doubts and fears. He stands up to those who attack him and deride him; always very ironic, he seems not to give much weight to criticism. However, the search for appreciation and approval contains a tragic element, which appears in the act of parading, connected with “appearing and defending oneself” (so Lacan puts it4). I tend to say that, for all of us, this tragic element is the question of narcissism. So complex a matter should not be simplified in accusatory or adulatory terms; I would rather present you with some food for thought, on which you may then theorize as you like. Because narcissism is something that belongs to us all and not just to dandies.

Primary Narcissism and Secondary Narcissism  

Writing about Freud's introduction to narcissism of 1914, Laplanche and Pontellis, scholars in psychoanalysis, note the difficulty of an unambiguous definition of the phenomenon5.  As a matter of fact, Freud himself offers several options. In a few words: there is Primary and Secondary Narcissism. Primary Narcissism designates a precocious state in which the child places all libido in himself, a state already present in the embryo. It is the phase in which the baby is the object of its own love, before external objects are chosen. Secondary Narcissism is when the libido is directed at the ego rather than at external objects. This is not a regression towards Primary Narcissism, when the individual concentrated exclusively on itself. Now, an energetic balance between investment of love in external objects and the ego is maintained. The individual creates an ideal ego, against which the own real ego is measured. What is being projected as ideal, is the substitute for that narcissism lost in childhood, when the individual was his own ideal. Thus, the ideal ego receives the self-love which the real ego enjoyed in childhood. The ideal ego is an expression of ongoing narcissistic formation. So we may well understand the complexity of the structure of the individual, acting according to expectations of himself about himself and about the universe and others. The growth of this individual is about distancing oneself from Primary Narcissism and approaching the realisation of the ideal ego, i.e. that which relates to the outside world. Essentially the ego sacrifices itself for the sake of its own ideal form, and enriches itself whenever it finds satisfaction in relation to objects, and whenever it achieves the ideal. Here we can understand that narcissism is indispensable to the desire for life. Returning to Oscar Wilde, one may ask whether, in his project to make himself into a work of art, he was closer to Primary Narcissism or rather placed himself in relation to others with the generosity of one who has something to offer. I do not know if we will be able to answer this question here. As I said earlier, I only would like to present you with some food for thought and you may draw your own conclusions.

Wilde dedicated himself to working on beauty, e.g. in his early works on ancient Greek art, beautiful, minutely detailed studies. The numerous lectures he gave, including those held in America, were not just theoretical exposés, but outright happenings in which to stage his ideas by means of a theatrical and unique way of dressing. One recalls the famous green fur-lined overcoat worn in America. The dressings-up were subsequently translated into everyday garments. Various biographies, e.g. Ellman, contain precise and documented references to such instances, e.g.:

“…on 1 May 1878 he dazzled an all-night fancy dress ball, given by Mr. And Mrs. Herbert Morell at Headington Hill Hall for 300 guests, by wearing a Prince Rupert costume with plum-coloured breeches and silk stockings. This finery pleased him so well that he bought it from the hiring firm and wore it playfully in his rooms…”6

The same mentality is reflected in an interview with the St. James Gazette in 1895, where he said: “All frivolous things in life should be taken very seriously, and all serious things in life should be treated with sincere and studied carelessness”. But in this apparent wisecrack, an element of pain is very much present. The challenge of living a tragedy, the passion for classical Greece and his work as playwright (with that lightness which Calvino admiringly spoke about his American Lessons), are elements of his life always kept in a precarious, odd balance. Wilde really is a character between myth and ritual who, through daily anecdotes, tries to become a part of history; who cohabitates with Greek statues but cannot do without some lilies in a blue vase, saying that one must render life aesthetic by surrounding oneself with beautiful objects. One might ask where this passion for aesthetics comes from; a passion so strong that it eats up a patrimony. (For Wilde, money was never enough.)

The mother is the first aesthetics  

Psychoanalysis traces the birth of aesthetics within the individual back to infancy, when the phase of consciousness begins. A child of two already possesses, by instinct, the awareness of existing in relation to surrounding space, in an intimate circle, and therefore in a relationship to `others', as if it said: `As I occupy a precise space, I am'. This undoubtedly subconscious awareness includes an idea of distance and measure which implies the relation with others, and the first `other' is the mother. Winnicott defined the mother as the child's “window on the world”. The psychoanalyst, using this strong image, argues that the child, in order to define itself, uses the outside world. This is a question of cultural experience, i.e. language:

“This [cultural experience] begins in the potential area which exists between the child and its mother, when, thanks to experience, the child develops great trust in the mother, so much so as to feel sure that she will be available whenever she is needed” 7.

A “transitional object”, something which the child clings to in order to reach the mother (e.g. a piece of cloth), is the symbol of this almost indissoluble union. Naturally, it is the memory of the good or bad breast (as Klene would say), or (as Fenichel would have it) the state of hunger which offers the first representation of objects, which means that the baby's needs have to be satisfied by something from outside. The world, initially explored by way of the mouth, is subsequently known by visual stimuli, so Freud observes in “Instincts and their Destinies”:

“The instinct of looking initially auto-erotic. It does have an object, however it is found in its own body. Only later the instinct is induced by means of comparison, to exchange this object with an object which is analogous with an extraneous body. Within the domain of the pleasure principle, he takes within himself the objects offered him, in as much as these substitute the sources of pleasure. He introduces and expels from his other end all that which, inside himself, becomes an occasion for displeasure” 8.

This modality of accepting and expelling, of seeing and not seeing, reminds one of the famous story of the child with a bobbin, which appears and disappears in substitution of the mother (Freud talks about this in “Beyond the pleasure principle“, 19209 ). Bollas relates the birth of aesthetics in human beings to that stage of childhood when the mother becomes a “transformational object”, and hypothesises that for the child, the mother ( i.e. the child's image of her) constitutes the first human aesthetics. The mother who, in the early months of the baby's life, acts as prosthesis, who appears and disappears as a source of aesthetic pleasure, remains a fixed point for the individual creativity.

But the scene cannot end here, with an idyllic picture of mother and child, because, as long as the child does not find the means to `take off', to grow and to develop an identity of its own, creativity would be incomplete. The two personalities penetrate each other up to the point that the child, who wishes to be everything for the mother - even that which she is lacking, i.e. the phallus - cannot enjoy its own individuality. And were it not for the intervention of the father, i.e. the law, the imagination would restrict this relationship between mother ad child in an absolute way, which would be very dangerous. The child, in order to get out of an admittedly fascinating, but morbid symbiosis in which it is struck, has not welcome the father (the famous “party pooper” as Lacan calls him), since it is he who, by detaching the child from the mother, opens the way to the realm of things symbolic - i.e. language, culture, knowledge of its own. He child accepts a limit, a `no'; the mother will not be all this, but in return he is offered access to reality. We might say that the child, in its morbid relationship with the mother, has been able to imaginatively appropriate the aesthetic stage for himself, and thanks to the father it found a creative language of its own, which distances him from the first phase. This allows the child to assume its own ability to think in order to access reality, i.e. a project, its realisation, something concrete. If one wanted to apply a title to this period, it might be: “From the mother, beyond the father, the object as a product of the aesthetics of love”.
Let us return to Wilde. Wilde came from a bourgeois background with more than a touch of great originality and genius. His father was an esteemed surgeon, an amateur archaeologist and an able writer, in other words: a brilliant man. But the father never enters Oscar's life in any decisive way. All biographers emphasise the deep relationship with his mother Jane: a poetess, an intellectual woman interested in politics, who always thought she had come into the world in order to achieve extraordinary things. These sentiments of hers were passed on strongly to the two sons, Oscar and Willy.

Meeting with sacrifice  

Wilde loved both his mother's poetry and her political ideas. It is easy to understand that Wilde wanted to be his mother's desire, and it is here that the complex question lies if we consider what we have said so far regarding the relationship between mother and child. There is a point in which Wilde did not make the leap beyond the symbiotic relationship with the mother. I would say that his whole life revolved around this overwhelming love for his mother; he was always a son. When he married the meek Costance, whom he loved greatly, and had children of his own, although he much thought about and loved his family, he could not bring himself to look after them as a father. This is as far as I authorise myself to go. It is the author's point of desperation, because he himself recognises his being unable to avoid a trajectory without limits, and, eventually a slide towards ruin. If accepting imprisonment without fleeing was surely a sign of courage, it was also a  kind of renouncing the saving of his own skin as an individual. It is a form of thought almost exclusively concerned with the `role', i.e. the object, the work of art. He knew that, through this martyrdom, the world would remember him as a hero, and so it was. Prison practically killed him; the protests raised  - particularly by French intellectuals - served little. But in all this there was a sacrifice for something extraordinary great, which is reflected in the phrase quoted at the beginning: “I want to make of my life itself a work of art”. Who knows where the aesthetics with his mother reached an end?  The love for beauty and luxury covers a great sense for suffering and pain, for human misery and abandonment; aspects of existence which, unfortunately, he was to know at the end of his life as he died poor and almost friendless. He is in this sense, luckily, a figure we cannot judge, always torn between majesty, tragedy and the fall into human misery.

We have talked about some aspects which are part of the subconscious of the dandy; grandiosity, myth, tragedy, ruin and disdain. As for myself, even though I have dealt little with Wilde, I have of course loved him greatly and tenderly. To conclude, I will quote the reaction from his mother when, being a student at Magdalen College, Oxford, Oscar Wilde won the Newdigate poetry prize on the 11th June 1978:

“Oh Gloria, Gloria! Thank you a million times for the telegram. It is the first pleasant throb of joy I have had this year. How I long  to read the poem. Well, after all, we have Genius - that is something attorneys can't take away. Oh, I do hope you will now have some joy in your heart. You have got honour and recognition - and this at only 22 [23] is a grand thing. I am proud of you - and am happier than I can tell - This gives you a certainty of success in the future - You can now trust your own intellect, and know what it can do. I should so like to see the smile on your face now. Ever and ever with joy and pride Your loving mother”10.

(Milan, 5th May 1997)

1.Lacan, J.: Gli scritti
2.` Secret Diary of a Lady of Fashion', Evening News, 15 Nov. 1920 - quoted in Ellman: Oscar    Wilde, pp 75-76: cf. also the present book p.45, ill. 9
3. Accademici della Crusca: Vocabolario degli accademici della Crusca
4. Lacan, j: Gli scritti
5. Laplanche, J. & Pontalis J.B.; Enciclopedia della psicanalisi
6. Ellman: Oscar Wilde, p.84: cf also the present book p.55, ill.17
7. Winnicot, D.: I bambini e le loro madri
8. S. Freud: Pulsioni e loro destini
9. S.Freud: Al di la' del principio del piacere
10. Quoted in Ellman: Oscar Wilde, pg.93

v.a.: Vocabolario degli accademici della Crusca - Firenze 1863-1923 (V. Impr.)
Calenghi: Lingua Italiana-Latina, Vol. I, Torino 1957
Ellman, R.: Oscar Wilde, London, 1987 (Penguin 1988)
Freud, S.: Freud - Opere (Ed. It. Dir. da Cesare Luigi Musatti) - Torino 1975-1977
                 - Introduzione al narcisismo ( Zur Einfuhrung des Narzissmus - Wien 1914)
                 - Pulsioni e i loro destini (Triebe und Triebschicksale - Wien 1915)
                 - Al di la' del principio del piacere ( Jenseits das Lustprinzips - Wien 1920)
Lacan , J.: Gli scritti - Torino1974 ( Les Escrits - Paris 1966)
Laplanche, J. & Pontalis J.B.: Enciclopedia della psicanalisi - Bari 1984 ( Vocabulaire de la psychoanalyse - Paris 1967
n.n.: “Magazine”, May 1929
Winnicott, D.: I bambini e le loro madri, Milano 1987 (Babies and their mothers - Winnicott Trust 1987

The Subconscious of the Dandy,in Narcissism in Oscar Wilde and in Present Day Fashion,Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti, Milano 2000,pp.33-39.

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