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“the highest achievement in socialist literature to date”

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Richard Seymour, aka Lenin of the Tomb, on Oscar Wilde in an interview with Mark Thwaite at ReadySteadyBook.

MT: Socialist classics: are you a Ragged Trousered fan, an Upton Sinclair fan? Is it Wilde’s The Soul of Man that moves and inspires you or some other fusty old tome I won’t have heard of?

RS: I love Wilde, and the essay you mention was probably the first socialist text I ever read, although there are moments when the egotistical sublime degenerates into egotistical absurdity. I could be wrong, but I think it was here that Wilde first refashioned Christ in his own image, a dirty trick that he would repeat in De Profundis just to show how little prison had altered him. Christopher Hitchens has argued, probably correctly, that the heroic individualism and distrust of the mob in Wilde’s socialism contains a coded plea for the right to live as a sexual outlaw. This is a fuck sight better than most excuses for megalomania. But I read The Soul of Man during that low, dishonest decade in which the Left was largely capitulating to neoliberalism, and in which New Labour was reviving every discredited form of bourgeois cant. I read that it was finer to steal than to beg. I read that disobedience was man’s original virtue. I read that one is shocked, not by the crimes of the wicked, but by the punishments inflicted by the virtuous. I read that the rich need to be liberated from their property, for their own good. I read all that and compared it to the farting balls that the ever aphoristic Tony Blair came out with – rights and responsibilities, fairness not favours, tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime – and was reminded that behind every political failure is a literary failure. While I’m on the subject of Wilde, why isn’t it more widely known that the highest achievement in socialist literature to date is The Importance of Being Earnest? To think that bourgeois audiences to this day can watch a Miramaxised version of the play, and not notice a vicious attack on their own proprietorial obsessions, their class bigotry, and the narrow self-interest embodied in the values that they claim are universal and enlightened, is a real shame. Someone should point it out to them. Let them go and watch Jimmy Carr, and keep their grasping philistine hands off Wilde.

Really like that bit about Earnest. Sure, it’s clear in a sense, but I never would have put it quite that way – but I will, the next time I teach it, and I teach it lots…

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May 21, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Posted in socialism, wilde