Retrospective Prospections – Archaeologies of the Self

Acabo de enterarme de que el reciente libro Introducing Cultural Studies
de David Walton (Sage, 2007) es un best-seller académico. Enhorabuena a
David, que es uno de los críticos más originales, extravagantes y
divertidos desde que el mundo es mundo; creíamos que Barthes o Lyotard
eran something wild hasta que
llegó David a hacer piruetas en la cuerda floja del circo crítico, en
monociclo hermenéutico y lycra multicolor, haciendo malabarismos
conceptuales con analepsis y cronotopos, sin que se le caiga ni uno al
suelo. Y si se le cae, ya rebotará, con trayectorias inesperadas.

A ver si con el éxito de este libro se anima a publicar su carnavalesca tesis doctoral sobre Oscar Wilde, “Mail Bondage. Sentencing Wilde between the Sheets…” y
no revientan los sesos del comité editorial ni se les caen los ojos de
las órbitas (—pop—) ni le suplican que cambie el título… A ver si se
atreven con la crítica creativa, vamos, en alguna editorial que le dé a
este libro el eco que merece, como lo merecía Umberto.

La tesis se defendió hace diez años, y aún sigue inédita (aunque en nuestra Miscelánea
apareció en 2000 un artículo relacionado con estas cuestiones). Pongo
aquí un excelente trocito que me interesa por la manera en que trata un
tema caro a mis obsesiones, la retrospección y su relación dialéctica
con el presente y con el futuro—o la narratividad del yo. Lo hace con el
ejemplo de Wilde, que tanto se presta—una de las razones por las que es
el tema de esta tesis, como también lo es del más reciente libro de
Pierre Bayard que comentábamos hace poco, Demain est écrit. A quienes les parezca paradójica la crítica de Bayard, no les recomiendo que continúen (in retrospection) con la de Walton. Para paradójica, o paradeójica,
no tiene par. Este fragmento (como la tesis en conjunto) me parece un
análisis magistral de la dimensión narrativa del yo, y de los límites
(flexibles, éstos) de la reinvención de uno mismo en circunstancias
difíciles. O, quizá, de cómo ejercer la libertad creativa a la vez que
se reconoce el peso del tiempo, del destino, del Sistema Penal y de los
juicios y opiniones incontrolables de los demás.

Se centra W. en la obra conocida como De profundis, y más propiamente llamada Epistola: in carcere et vinculis,
carta escrita por Wilde a su amado Lord Alfred Douglas, desde la
prisión de Reading, ese sitio tan apto para la relectura de sí. Y
analiza la sorprendente naturaleza profética o prospectiva de escritos
como Dorian Gray o El crítico como artista, que contenían (o al menos contienen ahora, tras la self-deconstruction) la crónica de desastres anunciados. Retrospección o retroacción que también hemos tenido ocasión de observar aquí con cierta extrañeza.

(Aviso: la tesis o rapsodia postestructuralista de Walton es dialogada,
polifónica y teatral. Este trocito del capítulo 3, sobre las
autorreconstrucciones de Wilde en la cárcel de Reading, es bastante
moderado en sus excesos formales, si vale la expresión, y vale).

The chronotope of (present) prison time: life as a symphony of sorrow within a hermeneutics of anachrony


And we are in hell, and a part of us is always in hell, walled-up, as we are, in the world of evil intentions.
(Bachelard, 1969: 217)
…where there is a wound there is a subject: die Wunde! die Wunde! says
Parsifal, thereby becoming ‘himself’; and the deeper the wound, at the
body’s centre (at the ‘heart’), the more the subject becomes the

(Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, 1982: 434)

JUDGMENT: Within the terms of the chronotope of (present) prison time
it is possible to use Bachelard’s notion that the “outside is inside” or
“the prison is outside” (1967:
217 & 221) as a controlling metaphor for reading how Wilde founds a
self on a perpetual sense of suffering. This is dependent on relating
the three coordinates of place, time and feeling. In terms of time all
events (which take place in prison) are focused through pain which is so
omniscient that it becomes itself the definition of event: 


we who live in prison, and in whose lives there is no event but sorrow,
have to measure time by throbs of pain, and the record of bitter
moments. We have nothing else to think of. ([Epistola…] 884)

Suffering is so overwhelming that it becomes the guarantee of identity: the self is
suffering. Events here become subsumed under an all enclosing event of
Nietzschean-like eternal recurrence; dominated by “throbs of pain” the
chronotope of (present) prison time is fundamentally iterative.
Given this structuring of the self any admission of joy would, in
effect, negate it, or interrupt its sense of coherence or continuity. In
this way Wilde necessarily constructs a past characterized by painful
tragic events locked within what I’ve called his construction of a
“metaphysics of destiny and doom.”[4] 


as it may sound to you—is the means by which we exist, because it is
the only means by which we become conscious of existing; and the
remembrance of suffering in the past is necessary to us as the warrant,
the evidence, of our continued identity. Between myself and the memory
of joy lies a gulf no less deep than that between myslf and joy in its
actuality. Had our life together been as the world fancied it to be, one
simply of pleasure, profligacy and laughter, I would not be able to
recall a single passage in it. It is because it was full of moments and
days tragic, bitter, sinister in their warnings, dull or dreadful in
their monotonous scenes and unseemly violences, that I can see or hear
each separate incident in its detail, can indeed see or hear little
else. (884)

construction of what might be called the hermeneutics of backward
reading (which makes up the narrative of the chronotope of pre- and
post-prison time) enables him (or obliges him, as he semes to be aware in the following passage) to read the incidents of his past life as proleptic
signs of a teleological history which would lead to debacle, doom and
the dungeon. This hermeneutic of backward reading aptly “aestheticizes”
the past into the form of a “Symphony of Sorrow” which reinforces the
unchangeable nature of a determinist history endowed with, in hindsight,
a fixed and recoverable thematics: 


much in this place do men live by pain that my friendship with you, in
the way through which I am forced to remember it, appears to me always
as a prelude consonant with those varying modes of anguish which each
day I have to realise; nay more, to necessitate them even; as though my
life, whatever it had seemed to myself and others, had all the while
been a real Symphony of Sorrow, passing through its rhythmically-linked
movements to its certain resolution, with that inevitableness that in
Art characterises the treatment of every great theme. (884).

an analeptic move, current suffering provides what Lyotard has called a
meta-narrative [5] to read the past; that past, through acts of prolepsis, then, provides the means for taking account of the future. This self-conscious hermeneutic anachrony (Genette’s term for shifts in time, 1980: 35f.) results in an interpretative context where past, present and future seme to
escape a determinist view of history because they are caught up in a
strategy of reading based on an unstable interdependent circularity.
This is where the outside becomes, through a metaphorical turn, the
inside. Wilde’s transformation of his pre-prison history into multiple
signs of suffering which cohere in a teleological trajectory towards
ruin and the prison door implicates him in a view of the “outside” (as
the history of suffering) as the same as that of the “inside”: for they
are both predicated on his homogenizing vision of event as suffering –
reversals which are, arguably, a piece of mere “common sense”. [6]

ADVOCATE: Could I be allowed double spacing, your Honour?

AUTHORIAL JUDGMENT: Yes, as long as you are prepared to agree with, or at least back up, everything I have to say.

ADVOCATE: Indeed, that is what I am here for, my Lord. So, could we not say that Wilde’s seming
efforts to hold together a sense of identity through suffering involves
him in a representation which effectively imprisions him in a self of
existential suffering, itself immured within this hermeneutic of
backward reading, resulting in an interpretive prison which is not
confined to the inside? (This semed to be confirmed (letteraly)
by a letter Wilde wrote to Ross asserting, “Of course from one point of
view I know that on the day of my release I shall be merely passing
from one prison into another, and there are times when the whole world
seems to me no larger than my cell, and as full of terror for me”
(Hart-Davis, 1979: 240-1).

AUTHORIAL JUDGMENT: I believe we could, yes. Yet Wilde’s act of reconstructing the past at once semes
like “an act of intervention in a changeable world” (Wilde feels
“forced” to reconstruct the past in a certain way) and, paradoxically,
“the documenting of an immutable one…” (his past life is determined by
his tragic destiny caught within the structural metaphor of the
symphony). [7] Furthermore, the “symphonic” view, if it semes to militate against the terms of the hermeneutic of backward reading or anachrony,
also sits uneasily with passages which deal with Wilde’s efforts to
change how contemporaries read or understood how he had been represented
in history (e.g. “I felt that for both our sakes it would be a good
thing… not to accept the account
your father had put forward through his Counsel for the edification of a
Philistine world, and that is why I asked you to think out and write
something that would be nearer the truth” (903). [8]. From this
perspective the self is caught or divided within two contradictory views
of history: history semes predetermined and yet is subject to intervention, re-reading and change.

addition to this split history, the metanarrative of backward reading
that Wilde uses to ensure continuity of identity comes into conflict
with an earlier passage where Wilde confesses “I don’t regret for a
single moment having lived for pleasure. I did it to the full… There was
no pleasure I did not experience… I lived in a honeycomb… The other
half of the garden had its secrets for me also” (922). This is linked to
my earlier interpretation of the hedonistic daily rituals where I
suggest that Wilde’s sense of an earlier more authentic “self,” which
sees itself as tragic victim, is in conflict with a self coerced into a
degenerate state, or is transmuted into a willing, or even wilful,
hedonist. [9]. If this undermines a coherent identity, then it is
further complicated by a self underpinned by pain. Wilde’s admission of
enjoying hedonistic pleasure to the full, according to the logic of
fashioning a self based on suffering as an all encompassing event which
only promises continuity by analeptically sending back tendrils of pain,
results in a downward spiral into a negation of identity, or non being.
Once Wilde claims joy as his own he semes to be caught out
by Pierre-Jean Jouve’s “we are where we are not” (Bachelard, 1969:
211); and could claim, like Iago, “I am not what I am”. [10] For, to
catch Wilde in an antimetabole, where there is joy there is no Wilde,
and where there is Wilde there is no joy. [11]

earlier hedonist self versus his prison self as sufferer, is mediated
through another force which can be said to problematize a determinist
view of history: art. At the point where Wilde affirms that “The other
half of the garden had its secrets for me also”, assuring Douglas of his
acceptance of suffering and pain, he asserts:


course all this is foreshadowed and prefigured in my art. Some of it is
in “The Happy Prince”: some of it in “The Young King,”… a great deal of
it is hidden away in the note of Doom that like a purple thread runs
through the gold cloth of Dorian Gray. In “The Critic as Artist” it is set forth in many colours: in The Soul of Man it is written down simply and in letters too easy to read: it is one of the refrains whose recurring motifs make Salome
so like a piece of music and bind it together as a ballad: in the
prose-poem of the man who from the bronze of the image of the “Pleasure
that liveth for a Moment” has to make the image of the “Sorrow that
abideth for Ever” it is incarnate. It could not have been otherwise.

Here Wilde’s own works serve as intertexts which seme to function within this strategy of backward reading. Yet the relation can be seen as a more dialectical one because this intertextual manoeuvre rehearses one of favourite aesthetic theories (to add my own intertext to this already considerable intertextual
ballast): “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. [12].
Wilde’s inversion of a common realist assumption enables him to read
present suffering back into the past, while suggesting that works of art
themselves play a determining role in the development of history. This
admission introduces yet another possibility to add to the forces which
have gone on to fashion Wilde. Wilde, from this perspective (to add to
the multi-layered possibilities of authoring suggested earlier [13]) ,
not only semes to fashion himself within the letter as author of his own works, but, paradoxically, is authored by his own works. In a structural relation which would bear out Wordsworth’s epigraph to his Intimations of Immortality, “The Child is father of the Man,” Wilde fathers his works, which, in turn, father him. [14].

Critics, at this point, may throw up their hands in despair and exclaim with Bachelard: “What a spiral man’s being represents! And what a number of invertible dynamisms there are in this spiral! One no longer knows right away whether one is running toward the centre or escaping” (1969): 214). However, to the very end of the letter Wilde suggests that there is one mental faculty that could transcend these multiple engendering forces, which seme to lead the fashioned self into a kind of anarchy of historical contradiction:

not be afraid of the past. If people tell you that it is irrevocable,
do not believe them.The past, the present and the future are but one
moment in the sight of God, in whose sight we should try to live. Time
and space, succession and extension, are merely accidental conditions of
Thought. The imagination can transcend them, and move in a free sphere
of ideal existences. (956)

the imagination only throws Wilde back into the contradictions of the
past as fixed, immutable or determined and a sense of history which is
fluid, negotiable and subject to change. Firstly the past is
alterable—albeit divested of any extension in time—being condensed into
one moment or event in the eyes of God. The coordinates of time, space,
succession and extension are merely accidental and Wilde goes on to
repeat another idea found in his essays on art: “Things, also, are in
their essence what we choose to make them. A thing is, according to the
mode in which one looks at it” (957). [15] So, one version of history
within this chonotope is like Stanley Fish’s literary text, it is negotiable, subject to the hermeneutical acts [16]; an interpretive position which semes
to be supported by the observations Wilde makes following his comments
on Blake (who fiunctions as a kind of Ur-reception theorist): 


others,” says Blake, “See but the Dawn coming over the hill, I see the
sons of God shouting for joy.” What seemed to the world and to myself my
future I lost irretrievably when I let myself be taunted into taking
the action against your father… What lies before me is my past. I have
got to make myself look on that with different eyes, to make the world
look on it with different eyes… This I cannot do by ignoring it, or
slighting it, or praising it, or denying it. It is only to be done fully
by accepting it as an inevitable part of the evolution of my life and
character… (957)

phenomenological view of the past as flexible history amenable to
change through reinterpretation is threatened by two factors: the past
as the future, and a concomitant sense of its inevitability.

When Wilde expresses the future in a play on one of his familiar paradoxes, “What lies before me is my past,” this semes to contradict a view of the past as open to interpretive bargaining. Now the past semes
to be someting settled, known—capable of future projection—because it
has to be accepted “as an inevitable part of the evolution” of his “life
and character”. The hermeneutics of anachrony or backward reading, which constructs the self in coherent narratives based on secondary proleptic
projections into present time, constantly pushes up against a self
which may be dissolved in the radical ontological uncertainty of those
past events, which, in turn, affect the “nature” of the self responsible
for constructing those narratives. Wilde, as historical subject, is at
once subject and object of the hermeneutical act; a self lost in an
infinite regress, potentially rehearsing a kind of unstoppable Iserian
kaliedoscope of gestalts and
ever-changing horizons; an identity whose being is constantly
jeopardized by the shuttlings of temporal perspectives and a compulsive
Iserian hermeneutic of anticipation, frustration, retrospection and
reconstruction. [17].

It is not a question of ridiculing Wilde for falling into contradiction, but tracing the spatio-temporal paths, the proairetic possibilities of the letter. After all, Wilde in his conclusion recognizes failure and reminds Douglas of the material context in which the letter was written:

far I am away from the true temper of soul, this letter in its
changing, uncertain moods, its scorn and bitterness, its aspirations and
its failure to realise those aspirations, shows you quite clearly. But
do not forget in what a terrible school I am sitting at my task. And
incomplete, imperfect, as I am, yet from me you may have still much to
gain. (957)




[4] See the section in the last chapter entitled “Paternal authors continued: of maternal authors and the de-storying and re-storying of Wilde…”

[5] See Lyotard (1984: 34f.).

[6] Now, if all this reversal of outside and inside semes like a piece of radical deconstruction, it may be worth recalling Zizek’s comment in Enjoy your Symptom!
that: “There is namely an unmistakable ring of common sense in the
‘deconstructionist’ insistence upon the impossibility of establishing a
clear cut difference between empirical and transcendental, outside and
inside, representation and presence, writing and voice; in its
compulsive demonstration of how the outside always already smears over
the inside, of how writing is constitutive of choice, etc. etc.—as if
‘deconstructionism’ is ultimately wrapping up commonsensical insights
into an intricate jargon. Therein consists perhaps one of the hitherto
overlooked reasons for its unforeseen success in the USA, the land of
common sense par excellence
(Zizek, 1992: 25). This opens up the possibility that all the reversals I
am bringing about here may be seen from the perspective of the good old
Anglo-Saxon tradition of common sense. However, since Zizek made these
suggestions there does not seme to have been a great rush by the proponents of “common sense” (whoever they may be) to embrace forms of deconstruction.

These phrases have been lifted from Eagleton’s discussion of George
Moore, which has little to do with the ideas I develop here. However,
they struck me as rather felicitous (Eagleton 1995: 217).

I deal with this more fully in a later section. See “Oscar de Sade:
Wilde on the pedestal and the case of the French letters”.

[9] See “Doing things to the ‘fall’: on the ontological uncertainty of going down primrose paths to the sound of flutes”.

[10] See Othello, act i, scene i (Shakespeare, [c. 1604] 1968: 53).

Incidents such as the one where Wilde’s favoured warder, Warder Martin,
who made Wilde laugh by scolding his stomach in his efforts to hide
some beef tea he was surreptitiously delivering to Wilde’s cell, would
presumably have rendered Wilde non-existent. The incident is recounted
by Montgomery Hyde (1976: 400f.).

“The Decay of Lying” (982). I have explored how this idea, and other
ideas outlined in the essays on art, is played out repeatedly in Wilde’s
own writings; see “Artful Lying and Lifting the Painted Veil:
Schopenhauer and the Psychological Role of Aesthetics in the Works of
Oscar Wilde” (Walton, 1991).

See “Of paternal authors. An author authored; or, on not being
yourself, including some discussion of the ‘Other’ as a scandal which
threatens Oscar’s essence”.

Wilde is fathered in a double sense here: fathered in the sense that
earlier works predetermine Wilde’s future, and in so far that my
fashioning of Wilde is the product of multiple semes—his works providing one means of constructing an identity for him. I am quoting Wordsworth from The Oxford Anthology of English Literature (Kermode et al., 1973: 176 [vol. 2]). Wordsworth takes the epigraph, of course, from one of his own poems, My Heart Leaps Up.

This can be compared to “The Decay of Lying” where Wilde has one of his
characters say, “If, on the other hand, we regard Nature as the
collection of phenomena external to man, people only discover in her
what they bring to her” (977). The lines quoted from the letter tend to complicate Dollimore’s assertion that “Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis
-… involves a conscious renunciation of his transgressive aesthetic and
a reaffirmation of tradition as focused in the depth model of identity”
(Dollimore, 1991: 95). I shall take up these ideas in Chapter Five.

[16] See, for example, Fish’s Is There a Text in This Class? (Fish, 1980). This claim on Wilde’s part tends to complicate the claim made by Rodney Shewan that “… De Profundis
is a critical work in both senses of that word. It takes pleasure in
finding fault. But it also tries to perceive things in their true
relations, to be ‘a disinterested endeavour’ to see ‘the objet as in
itself it really is’…” (Shewan, 1977: 194).

[17] For these concepts see Iser’s The Implied Reader (1974).

(Texto extraído de la tesis doctoral de David Walton “Mail Bondage. Sentencing Wilde between the Sheets: An Epestemology
of the Epistolary [An Architectonic Rhapsody].” Universidad de Murcia,
1997; defendida en 1998. Del capítulo 3, “Doing Time; a Poetics of
Space. Sen-TENSE-ing Wilde”; pp. 122-29).