Wilde’s libertarian legacy

There is little left to say about the brilliant Irish essayist, playwright, poet and novelist Oscar Wilde, author of classics of universal literature such as The Ghost of Canterville, De Profundis, The Importance of Being Earnest or The Picture of Dorian Gray. There is, however, one aspect of his life as an intellectual that is somewhat lesser-known: the facet referring to his political thought, collected in the 1891 work The Soul of Man under Socialism. It is a political writing clearly influenced by Kropotkin, with which Wilde continues in the wake of libertarian thought. In this text, the author offers a political theory about the individual, an agent he places at the center of political and social development.

True to his libertarian thought, Wilde always sought the liberation and expansion of the horizons of human action in all possible fields, something that is clearly reflected in his work, and which the author put into practice (although with some “front”) throughout his life, assuming that the emancipation of the subject also implies, obviously, the sexual freedom of the same person.

Wilde’s case is one of the best-known examples of the hypocrisy that Victorian society in the late 19th century displayed. The sexual orientation of the writer and literary critic (compatible with his public image as a married man and father of two children) was well known to his contemporaries. Not only they tolerated it, but they granted a brilliant success to the author, turned him into a celebrity while still very young. It was not until the father of his lover, the Marquis of Queensberry, publicly accused the author of sodomy, that the prudish society of the time censured Wilde’s behavior, in a process that ended in trial.

On May 27, 1895 Wilde was tried and found guilty of a crime of “serious indecency against some people” (as homosexuality was called in those days, something considered “aberrant” by the society of the time). After two years of confinement and forced labor in prison (initially in the Reading penitentiary, where he suffered painful conditions), he was released on May 19, 1897, 123 years ago today.

But society’s sentence did not end with his release from prison: turned into a pariah, denied by his own family, Wilde had to go into exile to Paris, where he wrote his last great work, a harsh criticism of the English prison system in the form of poem titled The Ballad of Reading Prison, with such a success that it prompted reform of conditions in Victorian prisons.

Thus, at the end of his life, Oscar Wilde left for posterity a new example of how books can decisively contribute to changing a reality full of injustice and unworthiness.

📷 Image by Graham Mulrooney/Alamy/ACI.

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