Event Date: 2 December 2009
Oscar Wilde might be understood not only as an Irish or an English writer but as a French one as well. Wilde often traveled to France, he composed his acclaimed play Salomé in French, and he promoted French culture as an international fraternity of aestheticism. This lecture argues for the Frenchness of Wilde and proposes that, in Salomé and his other French writing, Wilde propounds a paradoxical aesthetics that emerges from two interrelated fantasies. One is a fantasy of nationality that negates national allegiance altogether; the other is a fantasy of perverse female sexuality that negates gender and sexual identity altogether. Wilde’s idea of French as exterior to national and sexual identities comports with Alain Badiou’s notion of universality, which provides a conceptual framework for apprehending how Wilde’s writing institutes a break in being that undoes the ontological bases of identity. Wilde exemplifies this ontological fracture through what might be termed queerness, but it is a queerness affiliated as much with nationality and gender as with sexuality.
William A. Cohen is professor of English at the University of Maryland. He is the author of Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (University of Minnesota Press, 2008) and Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction (Duke University Press, 1996), and co-editor of Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2005).