Damian Walsh (UCL) - 2021-22 Students

Cosmopolitan Spiritualities: Decadence and the Varieties of Spiritual Form, 1876-1900

This thesis offers the first sustained exploration of the profound, and largely unacknowledged, debt which Decadent writers owed to transnational spiritual exchanges between East and West. My research focuses most closely on the work of Oscar Wilde, whose eclectic engagement with spiritual traditions ranging from Taoism to Theosophy and Catholicism has yet to be adequately explored. I argue that Wilde’s deep interest in ritual practices across these varied traditions exerted a major influence on his equally eclectic use of literary forms, from aphorism to novel to prose poem.

Rather than emphasising the centrality of one spiritual tradition to Wilde’s work, as previous scholars have done, I propose the model of ‘spiritual cosmopolitanism’ as key to understanding a broader context of transnational exchange which emerged in the late nineteenth century. My research complicates traditional notions of Decadence as a Classically-focused movement by drawing attention to the profound influence of non-Western spiritual traditions on Wilde’s thought and artistic practice. Drawing on recent developments in affect theory, this thesis also proposes new parallels between ritual and literary forms. Much like spiritual rituals, what role might different literary forms serve in helping to cultivate ethically useful affective states in their readers, viewers, and participants?

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