Matthew Kaiser


On his book The World in Play: Portraits of a Victorian Concept

Cover Interview of April 30, 2012

A close-up

Oscar Wilde—the subject of my concluding chapter—is the true hero of the book.  Were a reader to read only one chapter, it should probably be my chapter on Wilde, for he has the best solution to the dilemma of how one survives and thrives in a world in play.  We tend to think of witty, charismatic Wilde, who was arrested in 1895 and imprisoned for homosexual offenses, as a ludic martyr in a tragically unplayful age.  He made the middle-class world laugh at itself.  That world responded by crushing him.  That is what we have been taught.  The truth, however, is far more complicated.

What made Wilde so controversial was his refusal to take play seriously or show it the proper respect.  He was a spoilsport.  He mocked the cult of athleticism that pervaded all aspects of Victorian middle-class life.  Wilde famously quipped that the only outdoor sport he played was dominoes “outside French cafés.”  He delighted in undermining manly competition, loving his competitor, instead of competing with him.  Wilde’s critique of earnestness derived, in fact, from his mischievous ethic of anti-athleticism, for etymologically the word “earnest” means “struggle” or “contest,” a tedious and righteous impulse to win every battle, to be the best.

Wilde found beauty and pleasure in loss.  He viewed the athlete’s muscular body as an end in itself, not as a tool with which to defeat another man.  There is something profoundly Christian in Wilde’s renunciation of all things agonistic, his willingness to lose, his celebration of loss as a virtue.  His Victorian contemporaries viewed modern life as a brutal contest from which there was no escape.  The only ethical answer, Wilde concluded, in the spirit of the holy fool, was to play to lose, to choose not to want to win this soul-crushing game.  Therein lies the art of love.