April 28, 2014

Literary Critic Discusses Wilde Trials

Print More


Literary critic Prof. Shoshana Felman, the Robert W. Woodruff Distinguished professor of comparative literature and French, Emory University, lectured about the literary significance of the legal trials of preeminent Victorian playwright Oscar Wilde in Goldwin Smith Hall Monday.

Wilde, known for his various writings in the late 19th century, was tried and convicted of “gross indecency,” a term synonymous with homosexual behavior, in 1895, according to Felman.

Felman said she thinks the trial was a “poignantly ironic spectacle of comic and tragic misencounter between the two competing discourses” of law and literature as well as part of a wider “transhistorical, culturally repeated” pattern of literature and authors being put on trial, Felman said.

“At the dawn of philosophy, Socrates drinks the cup of poison by which he is condemned by the Athenians for atheism and corruption of youth, and similarly, Wilde is put to trial for homosexuality and his obscene, youth-corrupting work,” Felman said.

Felman also noted there were several “unique” aspects of the trial, including the laughter during the legal proceedings.

“Time after time, Wilde [threw] the audience into unexpected fits of laughter which interrupt the cross examination,” she said.

Though the Victorian court convicted Wilde, “history reversed the judgment” of the conviction in that his plays are now performed more often in England than any playwright other than Shakespeare, according to Felman.

Felman’s work showcases the complicated relationship between art and law, and is “crucial” to contemporary discussions, according to Prof. Philip Lorenz, English.

“Felman’s exploration of the encounter between literary and legal discourses opens up a space that is crucial and difficult to navigate, and that resists being circumscribed and forced into a decision, Lorenz said. “It’s a matter of power, freedom, and the problem of repetition.”

Felman made a point that though the Wilde trial took place over a century ago, Wilde’s defense for the “rights of all writers” is still applicable to contemporary debates regarding the value of literature, according to Felman.

“This is very relevant today — we are all concerned with this fight for literature. Financial leaders think that the humanities should be cut,” Felman said. “We are all concerned with the cause and dignity and meaningfulness of literature and I think this is what Wilde is trying to make an apology for.”

Students said they agreed that Felman’s lecture was “timely” and relevant to current issues facing the humanities at American universities, according to Megan Kruer grad.

“It’s very timely because I was an undergraduate at Emory University during a period of budget cuts [to humanities departments], and it was very interesting to see Prof. Felman integrate the sorts of questions faced by institutions in the current academic climate,” she said.

Sarah Aquilina ’14 said she “really appreciated” how Felman closed the lecture by relating the idea of literature on trial to the defense of literature or the crisis in the humanities today.

“Felman’s reconfiguration of the way we might normally think of the Wilde trials — a testimony on homosexuality — as a means of ‘getting literature out of the closet’ was incisive and illuminating,” she said.