Wilde about the Web

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The Independent Online

Death hasn't really dented Oscar Wilde's wit. That is true in an obvious sense, of course. The epigrams live on - a thick blanket of perfectly poised quips - and so does Wilde's reputation, effortlessly coasting through this year's centenary way-marker (he died in November 1900). But if you want more literal evidence of the deathless nature of Oscar's genius, look on the Web, where, among the fanzines and electronic crib-sheets, you can find a sound-file, notionally a brief posthumous interview with Oscar, conducted through the medium Leslie Flint.

Death hasn't really dented Oscar Wilde's wit. That is true in an obvious sense, of course. The epigrams live on - a thick blanket of perfectly poised quips - and so does Wilde's reputation, effortlessly coasting through this year's centenary way-marker (he died in November 1900). But if you want more literal evidence of the deathless nature of Oscar's genius, look on the Web, where, among the fanzines and electronic crib-sheets, you can find a sound-file, notionally a brief posthumous interview with Oscar, conducted through the medium Leslie Flint.

The bulk of the conversation is decidedly under-powered. It sounds rather as if Oscar has come to the phone after a long session with the absinthe bottle and can't think of anything to talk about except the satisfactory absence of wasps in the celestial fields. But this preposterous document ends with a remark of authentically Wildean spirit: "Thank God I lived before my time," he drawls, before wandering off to buttonhole George Bernard Shaw.

There is a paradox here, as in so many of Wilde's genuine epigrams, because the received opinion is that living before his time was Wilde's curse. The websites aren't exactly innumerable (Google gives 169,000 hits for a search on "Oscar Wilde") but they are immensely varied - and yet most concur that Wilde was, in some way or other, a 20th-century figure.

Look at the International Worker's Bulletin and you find a lively debate about Wilde's exemplary socialist commitment - gamely trying to clamber round the intellectual overhang of pronouncements such as: "All art is quite useless."

Look at When the Blue Bird Sings, a bimonthly magazine site devoted to all things Oscar, and you discover a St Sebastian of gay pride (not to mention the appealingly headlined article "Oscar made me buy it", a review of products that have used Wilde as a marketing ploy).

Read the contemporary reports of Wilde's lecture tour to San Francisco and you discover a proto-Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, urging his audiences to wainscot their hallways with local timbers and identify a keynote colour for each room of their apartments. He can even be seen as anticipating that 20th-century genius for celebrity pure and simple - a vice for The Times's obituarist, who condescendingly noted that he had "talents which might have been brought to fruition had it not been for his craving after notoriety", but a virtue for the age of Madonna and Warhol.

It's easy to forget, in this atmosphere of moral adulation, how risible Wilde looked to many of his contemporaries. Anyone who has read Richard Ellman's biography of Wilde and wondered about the exact nature of Ambrose Bierce's attack on him (Ellman doesn't quote it) can find that on the Web, too - a scatological rant of which only some of the spleen can be put down to professional envy: "He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck," Bierce raves. "He has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh."

And while that was a good deal more ferocious than most responses, it wasn't entirely at odds with Wilde's popularity - which was seen as a matter of brilliant frivolity. The 20th century had far less difficulty with the combination of light and heavy, but even so it's difficult to believe that Wilde would mean what he does to us without his ultimate rejection by the 19th. What the Web demonstrates - with its characteristic eccentricity - is that Wilde is ours because they didn't want him. Thank God he lived before his time.

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