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Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetic Theory in 'De Profundis'

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Composed in January through March of 1897 in Reading Prison, Berkshire, De Profundis is a letter of “revelation of all that is feeblest in the writer”. Written by Oscar Wilde addressing his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, or, Bosie, the title of the eighty-page letter translates from Latin to “out of the depths.” The letter describes Wilde’s account of the events leading up to his imprisonment when he was convicted to two years hard time for “gross indecency.” While the letter is tinged with hatred and regret, Wilde makes a point to assign blame for the situation and outcome not just on Bosie and his father, but on Wilde himself. Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde biographer, notes that while on the surface the letter seems to be a bitter recognition of Bosie’s destructive influence on Wilde’s life, “the most important thing about De Profundis is that it is a love letter” (515). In addition to being an acknowledgement of his love for Bosie, Wilde’s point in De Profundis was to “restore the esteem and respect which his parents had held in public life before his humiliation” while trying to explain himself to the lover who was responsible for his incarceration. While there is no denying that Wilde’s letter is a plea to have Bosie understand the misgivings of their relationship, it is also Wilde’s own attempt to understand for himself his own part in his fall. Wilde took the opportunity to turn his misgivings into a personal exploration of what really is important to himself as an artist as well as a man, using aesthetics as a major motif to hinge most all of his advice and personal exploration on.

What is interesting about the letter is Wilde’s unwavering adherence to his aesthetic principles. The letter proves that while prison was a “time and place of anguish for Wilde… it was also a time…that provided him with an occasion on which to celebrate the symbolic relationship between himself and the art and culture to which his life belonged'.

Wilde asserted that that in order to live an aesthetic life, a person must live as though one was a living, breathing work of art. De Profundis is proof that even while surrounded by the horrors of prison Wilde insisted on living as artfully as he could. Wilde’s basic aesthetic principles were based on three ideas: that art is life, that art must be moral, ethical, and positive, and that art, similar to life, is wholly paradoxical. Though “more than half of De Profundis is taken up by his confession, not of his own sins, but Bosie’s” the letter is an example of Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy, which includes his version of a moral and ethical way of living. Oscar Wilde discovered aestheticism from his readings of the Ancient Greeks in his youth and adopted Dandyism, a way of living that “made an art of their lives, and this the Aesthetes found irresistible”. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that deals with “the beautiful as exhibited in works of art…aesthetics considered on its objective side has to investigate…a function of art in general as expressing the beautiful, and then the nature of beauty thus expr’essed”. The “cultivation of refined aesthetic tastes and the indulgence in decadent obsessions were part of a movement in which Wilde was leader” and at the center of aestheticism was a desire of “individuality and self-consciousness as both the cause and effect of art”. Wilde wrote that “it is through Art, and through Art only, that we can realise our perfection; through Art, and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence”. If it is art that helps the creator realize perfection, then De Profundis is that piece of art that helped Wilde discover his perfection of self-awareness, self-analysis, and self-discovery. In short, Wilde’s aesthetic principles revolve around the idea that art is created solely for its own sake, that its only duty is to bring good to the world.

It is necessary to define what Wilde meant when he used the word “art” to fully understand his philosophy concerning aesthetics. Wilde saw art as “A unique endeavor, quite independent of moral or utilitarian values and prerogatives; its specific appeal is to the artistic temperament, rather than to any other aspect of our experience; the artistic temperament is conditioned by and responds to the aesthetic sense, which is to way to a sense of beauty; beauty is communicated by for. The only further step that was taken…was to associate beauty and truth.”

Wilde and his followers thought of art as life, and life’s experience as the highest expression of beauty. Julia Prewitt Brown, author of Cosmopolitan Criticism: Oscar Wilde’s Philosophy of Art, posits that “by art, Wilde means both the work of art and the aesthetic sense or potential in each of us. By life—which often appears in close proximity to the word art—Wilde means the ongoing experiences that constitute existence”. Both definitions define art in relation to life, because, to Wilde, one could not live artistically without perceiving the beauty around them. The crux of his argument in De Profundis tends to hinge on the fact that Bosie not only ruined Wilde’s life personally and professionally but also aesthetically. This is what Wilde perceived after contemplating the lack of beauty in his life caused by Bosie. Wilde writes that he “blames himself for allowing an unintellectual friendship, a friendship whose primary aim was not the creating and contemplation of beautiful things, to entirely dominate my life”. From the outset, he uses art as a means to convey to Bosie that it is his lover’s lack of aesthetic principles that ruined Wilde. He goes on to address Bosie, summarizing his faults: “You must see now that your incapacity of being alone: your nature so exigent in its persistent claim on the attention and time of other: your lack of any power of sustained intellectual concentration: the unfortunate accident—for I like to think it was no more—that you had not yet been able to acquire the “Oxford temper” in intellectual manners, never, I mean, been one who could play gracefully with ideas but had arrived at violence of opinion merely—that all these things, combined with the fact that your desires and interests were in Life not in Art, were as destructive to your own progress in culture as they were to my work as an artist? When I compare my friendship with you to my friendship with such still younger men as John Gray and Pierre Louys I feel ashamed. My real life, my higher life was with them and such as they.”

Plato presumed that “poetical limitations are ruinous to the understanding…the knowledge of their true nature is the only antidote to them”.

Wilde realizes, using art and his artistic existence, that Bosie’s lack of aesthetic value and his “poetical limitations” as well as his less than satisfactory intellectual vigor caused Wilde’s downfall. This knowledge is the antidote to his misery, as knowing is the first step to fixing the problem. The problem that Wilde realizes is Bosie’s presence in his life. While Wilde acknowledges that Bosie was preoccupied with only life and not art, he uses De Profundis to show that life is not whole without the presence of art. Bosie is his proof of this theory.

Wilde viewed life as art’s student. Without art, life would not be as informed, as whole, or as beautiful. This “mimetic-expressive, pedagogical relation is the germ of the theory of reception by which Wilde resolves the main contradiction of aestheticism—that is, the paradoxical separation yet interdependence of art and life”. In other words, Wilde’s aesthetic theory dictates that art and existence are inseparable, in that art is the essence of life itself. This is evident in De Profundis as Wilde, the man who views himself as a living, moving piece of art attempts to reform the person who, in his opinion, is without aesthetic principles that would make Bosie “good” in Wilde’s eyes. In fact, in Wilde’s perfect world, life would imitate art, or, Bose would imitate Wilde in his aesthetic and moral values, Wilde considering himself a living work of art and therefore “life’s teacher.”

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A chief idea behind Wilde’s philosophy of aesthetics was the idea that everything in life should be beautiful, and that by comparison, everything that is beautiful should be good. To Wilde, to be good meant to live in the present, which applies to the spontaneity of Wilde’s life. The job of aesthetics is to “discuss such topics as the relation of art to nature and life, the distinction of art from nature, the relation of natural and artistic beauty, the conditions and nature of beauty in a work of art, and especially the distinction of beauty from truth, from utility, and from moral goodness”. A major component to Wilde’s philosophy of aesthetics was the idea of blending morality and artistic quality into a perfect piece of art. Influenced by Kierkegaard, Wilde believed that “the aesthete is unable to escape the ethical basis of life because he cannot transcend time except purely in his imagination”. If life is art, then life must be ethical in order to be beautiful. The aesthete cannot control time and changes in one’s life, therefore the only way to be free of any ethical responsibility is in one’s works of artistic output. But to Wilde, life is art. If art is considered to be morality and life bound as one, then it can be understood that art is everything, as life is the sum of all of our experiences. The approach that Wilde takes when addressing the ruin that is his life can be viewed as positive, as throughout the letter Wilde blames himself for allowing the ugliness to penetrate his life, learning from his experience with Bosie. Wilde assumes blame for the ruin that has become his life in addition to Bosie’s guilt by noting that “while you were with me you were the absolute ruin of my Art, and in allowing you to stand persistently between Art and myself I give myself shame and blame in the fullest degree”. Wilde realizes that if he were to place blame for his downfall solely on Bosie, he would not learn and gain insight from his experience. And, blaming Bosie solely for his destruction would not be artistic, as outward bitterness would not be considered artistic in his view of aesthetic qualities as being bitter is an ugly trait. Plato observes that “few persons ever reflect, as I should imagine, that from the evil of other men something of evil is communicated to themselves”. Wilde knew that the “evil” of Bosie’s lack of aesthetic principles had transferred to himself, and he knew that in order to uphold the air of aestheticism that he was so well known for he to needed to be culpable for his downfall.

Wilde also believed that life is paradoxical in its nature and that everything, including artistic output, can be seen as a puzzle to human behavior. Influenced by Nietzche, Wilde saw art “not as a signpost to something else—it is that something else… Wilde bespeaks a philosophy of ethical aestheticism that does not point elsewhere but always back to its own paradoxical truths”. His “philosophy of beauty was never quite sincere. He did not write for Philistines with his heart in his mouth, but merely with his tongue in his cheek”.

If life is paradoxical, and life is art, then art too is paradoxical. If art is paradoxical, then is there one way to interpret art? Wilde did not think so, as his definition of aestheticism depends not only on beauty but on perception and there is no one “right way” of seeing things. There is a personal element to the perception of things, so while Wilde agreed that there is no one right way to view and interpret art, every interpretation is and can be right. Therefore, art is a puzzle that cannot be concretely “solved,” in the conventional sense. One way Wilde achieved this moral and paradoxical effect is by writing aphorisms, which “retain a decidedly moral reflection” (Brown 35). By presenting puzzles which teach moral code to the reader, Wilde “subtly turns the vocabulary of English moral and social criticism against itself, allowing its latent contradictions to emerge; and in doing, he brings about a transformation from within” (Brown 35). An example of this paradoxical nature in De Profundis is Wilde’s approach to the insults that he presents to Bosie’s actions and self. The insults are paradoxical as while Wilde blames himself for much of their relationship problems, he also uses them to place blame on Bosie. Who the reader sides with is based on the individual perception of the reader. Wilde realizes that if Bosie were really living an artistic life, he would be able to understand the paradoxical nature of Wilde admitting his own responsibility for his downfall while realizing that what Wilde is really doing is blaming Bosie. But at some points, Wilde drops the blame off himself and places the fault solely on Bosie’s shoulders in order to make his lover understand just what his artless life has done to him. Wilde shares with Bosie that his “insistence on a life of reckless profusion:your incessant demands for money: your claim that all your pleasures should be paid for me whether I was with you or not: brought me after some time into serious monetary difficulties, and what made the extravagances to me at any rate so monotonously uninteresting, as your persistent grasp on my life grew stronger and stronger, was that the money was really spent on little more than the pleasures of eating, drinking, and the like. Now and then it is a joy to have one’s table red with wine and roses, but you outstripped all taste and temperance. You demanded without grace and received without thanks.”

Wilde acknowledges the paradox of living an aesthetic life, as living a beautiful life is to indulge in life’s finer offerings, but the aesthete runs the risk of becoming lax. It is interesting to note that many Wildean critics see Wilde’s sincerity in De Profundis as “merely an aesthetic pose…De Profundis signals not the end, but the elaboration in new directions of Wildean self-fashioning” (Doylen 565.) So is his sincerity in Bosie’s blame just an attempt to further his aesthetic principles? It is also amusing to note that Bosie had no idea the letter was addressed to him until a 1913 trial in which excerpts were read to him. Even the intended recipient of the letter was confused as to whom the letter was addressed to and what it was trying to convey. The approach Wilde uses to address Bosie is demonstrably paradoxical. The flip-flop between placing blame on himself and blame solely on Bosie proves to be paradoxical, as one tries to figure out who really should take the condemnation. Who really is to “blame” for Wilde’s imprisonment? This is a puzzle for both the reader and for Bosie to figure out, but Wilde knows that Bosie will never understand this because of his lack of aesthetic principle.

Another example of the paradoxical nature of art and life can be seen in the binaries that Wilde consistently sets up for Bosie in De Profundis. Even Wilde and Bosie themselves can be seen as opposites—Wilde being good and moral and artistically sound while Bosie is bad and amoral and suffers from a lack of aesthetic principles. Wilde tells Bosie that “like myself, you have had a terrible tragedy in your life, though one of an entirely opposite character to mine. Do you want to learn what it was? It was this. In you Hate was always stronger than Love…Love is fed by the imagination, by which we become wiser than we know, better than we feel, nobler than we are…only what is fine and finely conceived can feed Love. But anything will feed Hate.”

Using the love versus hate binary exemplifies Wilde’s point that the concepts of Love and Hate (capitalized, signifying importance) are essential to the paradoxical nature of life.

No one person can fully understand the motives behind Love and Hate, thus presenting a puzzle. If life is art, life is made up of Love and Hate, and life is paradoxical in nature, then art too is paradoxical. Wilde uses artistic language to portray this. It is as if Wilde knows that the puzzle will never be solved, so he makes a point to use beauty in his writing to at least make his points beautiful. Brown states that “when Wilde writes that ‘it is through Art, and Art only, that we can realise our perfection; through Art, and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence’ he uses art to mean both the work we see…and the aesthetic capacity in each of us”. Again, Wilde is presenting a paradox as De Profundis proves that he believes that Bosie has no aesthetic capacity but he believes that all men are capable of good, including Bosie. If he believes that every man has goodness in him, he states many times that Bosie does not, hence complicating life as art. It is believed that “the artist must hold no brief for either good or evil, and that the excellence of a work descends entirely upon the skill of presentation”. Wilde has presented yet another puzzle, as by identifying himself as somewhat evil for putting himself in his situation he does not how any favoritism toward good and bad. He uses the beauty of his writing to demonstrate the paradoxical nature of art as well as life.

It is very difficult to fully understand what is really being said to Bosie in De Profundis. What the reader can see is Wilde’s devotion to his theory of art and that even in the most horrible conditions that surrounded him he still yearned to send art into the world. De Profundis “ranks as a major piece of nineteenth-century autobiography” but also is an example of artistic and aesthetic theory in real life conditions. But because of his desire for beauty, Wilde would not see his life as a tragedy, as “Oscar was no tragedian. He was the superb comedian of his century, one to whom misfortune, disgrace, imprisonment were external and traumatic. His gaiety of soul was invulnerable”. He would want everything associated with him to be seen as absolute and pure beauty. Perhaps Wilde would want his critics to simply remember when examining his time in prison that “beauty is truth, truth beauty/that is all ye know on earth/and all ye need to know”. If anything, De Profundis is a work of pure beauty and should be treated as the ultimate truth in Wilde’s assessment of his situation. It is up to the reader to discern that truth.

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Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetic Theory in ‘De Profundis’. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 26, 2024, from
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