A lot has been written about Oscar Wilde’s interaction with his audience – and the way he uses this interaction to sell himself as an aesthetic product. Kostas Boyiopoulos, of Durham University, sees this as a form of confidence trick. He is particularly interested in the idea of the ‘long con’: a scam which takes days, weeks, months, or even years to unfold. Kostas began his talk by arguing that the Wildean long con represents a form of meta-fiction. The con takes place on many levels and extends beyond the world of fiction.
Kostas suggested that the importance of Wilde the conman becomes clear when you look at the popular reaction to his tour of America (1882-3). Wilde arrived only days after the conman Charles ‘Doc’ Baggs had committed a great swindle and the press was keen to link the two men as scammers. Later, in New York, Wilde met the swindler Joseph ‘Hungry Joe’ Lewis. After having dinner with him, Wilde was persuaded to play dice. ‘Hungry Joe’ tricked the travelling aesthete into losing $1,500. Wilde went to the police, but the Chief accused Wilde of being as much a con artist as ‘Hungry Joe.’ This is perhaps not surprising given the American lampooneries of Wilde’s over the top style and choice of clothing. His critics used language associated with gambling and gaming to condemn him by association.
Kostas argued that this was an apt comparison. He pointed out the similarities between the conmen Poe wrote about and the dandies of Baudelaire. Both prize deceptive masks; and both make life into a performance. Kostas looked specifically at Wilde’s Pen, Pencil and Poison (1889), an essay focusing on the aesthetic murderer and forger Thomas Wainewright. Wainewright forged wills and did profit financially from his crimes, but Wilde suggests that he also sinned for the thrill of sinning. This places him at odds with society’s orthodox morality; the dandy/conman seeks revenge on the bourgeois world by exposing its philistine hypocrisy.
Kostas returned to the idea of the con as meta-fiction when he looked at The Portrait of Mr. W. H. (1889) as an example of a literary con. He argued that Wilde’s text has the power to extend beyond its boundaries and ‘contaminates reality.’ The story begins as the narrator and his friend Erskine discuss literary forgeries. Erskine describes the tragic story of his friend Cyril. Cyril, it appears, has killed himself to prove a homosexual reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Erskine even produces a portrait of the young man that Cyril claimed inspired Shakespeare – it is, of course, a fake. Nonetheless, the narrator is immediately spellbound by the theory. The more that the deception is revealed, the more the narrator believes in the lie. Wilde’s text infects the reader through the literary con. The forged artefact blends and blurs the boundaries of fictionality.
Kostas’ talk opened up some really interesting ways of looking at Wilde and his work. The figure of the con artist provides us with a counterculture rebel who attempts to redefine truth and challenge the received wisdom of his/her age.