Applying Rhetoric to Your Writing

Image for postOscar Wilde’s gravesite in Paris. Photo by Walter Bowne.

Hey there. Walter Bowne here. So. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ and the ‘Preface’ to Dorian Gray. Fantastic piece, right? Oscar Wilde added the Preface after he received so much heat and hate for the late Gothic and philosophical novella.

His characters speak in witty and amoral epigrams, like Wilde, but does that mean the characters are manifestations of the actual Oscar Wilde?

Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine first published the work in the July 1890 issue. Without Wilde’s knowledge, they cut stuff. You know, because it was, ‘indecent.’

The work was ery controversial. In the second edition of the work, he added the ‘Preface’ to address his critics that claimed he wrote an immoral work, and that it was indecent, and whatever else they found ‘objectionable.’

The art of rhetoric should not be lost

So let’s dig through the ‘Preface,’ a rhetorical analysis mining expedition. That means I’ll examine the choices Wilde makes in crafting this masterpiece to make his point. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Many of you are like, no duh. But stay with me: I think think this is very interesting stuff. Why would I waste my time if I didn’t, right?

So ‘The Preface’ is also a work of persuasion. So what is Wilde persuading us to believe?

It just may be the very opposite of what he is writing. It’s as if he’s writing the Preface to appease his critics, to make them listen, and to make them agree with his position about Art. He’s like, ‘Listen. It’s just a work of art. Don’t think I’m crazy just because I wrote some crazy stuff.’

But really, that could just be a ruse. You know, to throw them off his real position. And those who are skilled readers will discern his true intention, and his ultimate message: I do have a message in my art; I want to address forbidden topics at the time, like homosexuality, which was illegal in Britain at the time, in the late 19th century. Heck, it carried on further than that, even, into the 20th century.

Image for postOscar Wilde’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Photo by Walter Bowne, Pilgrim of English.

A deep dive into the work

Enough context, right? I’ll use rhetorical terms for you to know and understand and also use in your own writing. Application is everything.

He opens: ‘The artist is the creator of beautiful things.’

This is a declarative sentence — a simple sentence: subject and verb are placed at the beginning. This is his opinion. It sets the topic for discussion. This seems like a ‘truism’ — valid on its surface. But it’s an effective hook; it catches the readers like a worm dangling on a hook. It is so simple. Who can disagree?

So if you’re writing a persuasive essay, don’t come right out and state your opinion. Your reader may say, ‘No, I don’t agree with you,’ and stop reading.

In the beginning, let everyone agree with you. It’s a great way to create a bond.

He writes, ‘To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.’

This is called antithesis — using opposites — like night and day and heaven and hell — reveal and conceal. This creates symmetry and balance in writing. Readers see this time and again in the Bible, Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King. They know how to use antithesis.

The statement is also ironic. Why? As a writer, or really, any artist, don’t you want to share the world with what is going on with you? How do you see the world?

Can we believe what we read on the surface?

Is Oscar Wilde really being serious here? He was initially criticized for creating an immoral work that must have revealed his immorality. So he added the preface as a “statement” about Art is more essential than the Artist. Why would I want to reveal the inner artist?

Again, this is debatable. Is Art greater than the Artist? Should we ‘cancel’ or condemn a great work because of the statements or beliefs of the artist?

For example, is Stephen King an awful person because he creates horrible people and situations in his stories? Well, no.

I once got in trouble at school for sharing a short story of mine. Something I wrote made a student ‘uncomfortable’ and she thought I was not a decent person because of a situation in the story. Ok.

Rule number one

I learned not to share my own professional work with students who needed something to use against me months later to justify a poor performance in my course. It’s a tough world out there for academics in a pro-consumer world.

Rule number two

Just because I write about a character who does or thinks something weird, or different, or ‘immoral,’ doesn’t mean I’m immoral.

My grandfather said that we’re all insane inside our own minds. But the truly insane act upon those thoughts. Vice. We love reading and watching shows about people who are working through troubles and difficulties, maybe even disturbing.

‘The critic,’ Wilde says, ‘is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things. The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.’

Here, he addresses the ‘critics’ of Art. His ‘immoral’ art. As readers or consumers of Art, we are critical. ‘I love that show!’ ‘I hate that show… and these are my reasons…’ What are your reasons for not liking ‘The Americans,’ or ‘You,’ or ‘Breaking Bad’?

The proper role of critics

So critics can see things in Art that other people cannot see. It’s why we love food critics. They’re usually chefs, and they know the business of food, the art of cuisine. But he uses antithesis again (high/low) and criticizes critics for only seeing through one’s eyes. So if you’re a critic of ‘art’ and you only see through your vision of the Time, you may think Vincent Van Gogh is garbage or Melville’s Moby Dick as awful. The ‘art’ was not wrong; the critics at the time were wrong.

This is where autobiography gets in the way of ‘sight’ and ‘appreciation.’

Then Oscar Wilde writes, ‘Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are cultivated.’

He’s doing many things here. First, he’s using an aphorism: a terse (short) statement of truth: like a proverb. He uses antithesis again: this is his principle rhetorical mode: ugly and beautiful… ‘Those’ refers back to ‘critics’ of Art and his work. Can one be corrupt and charming? Yes.

You’ll need to read ‘Dorian Gray’ or watch ‘Lucifer’ on Netflix, to see what I mean. It’s a fun show, at least in the beginning. He’s corrupt but so charming. Imagine Satan trying to be good? So the critics who see the ugly in his beautiful work are not worth listening to…. But the critics who see the beauty within the beauty, that’s solid and great.

He continues: ‘For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.’

The ‘elect’ are the chosen ones. The highest. The ones with the greatest clarity and insight.

‘Books are well written or badly written. That is all.’

So if you see a book that has been banned for immorality, like ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ or ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘Huck Finn,’ Oscar Wilde would disagree. Is it well written or poorly written?

Of course, we can debate this, but he’s addressing his critics here: my book is not immoral because it is so well written. And can anyone disagree with that? ‘Hey, I’m Oscar Wilde! Right? I’m a celebrated Irish writer who is the toast of the West End in London? Who are my rivals?’

Shaw, maybe. Whistler? No.

He uses another aphorism, often tied to antithesis: moral/immoral…. well/bad. Critics thought his novel was immoral because so many people do immoral things. You have to read the book to see what they say and do. But since it was so well written and therefore beautiful, it should stand as Beauty.

‘This also might cause you confusion,’ he writes. ‘The nineteenth-century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth-century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.’

The difference between allusion and illusion

Here, he’s using an allusion, a reference to another piece of art, person, character, not to be confused with illusion. Using allusions helps the reader understand a concept because we can connect…. Like if you used, ‘He looked like Harry Potter.’ Potter is the allusion. ‘I felt as helpless as Baby Yoda’ or ‘I stood proud like Achilles.’

Using allusions helps the writer by not needing to go into detail. The image has been pre-established and connected, like an archetype, a primary image, that exists already.

Not everyone is going to get the allusions. Have you ever read T.S. Eliot? That’s fine. Use the allusions that resonate with you. Allow the intellectually curious reader to uncover some gems. If they don’t it’s okay. ‘Oh, I don’t get this, b

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