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Morrissey and Daoism



   OSCAR WILDE   1854-1900   

Victorian wit, novelist, playwright and poet.

In May 2006, Morrissey posed in Uncut magazine as St. Sebastian and as a Christ-like figure enhanced by supernatural light. “I live a life that befits a priest virtually. (…) I live a saintly life,” he said in 1983 (NME interview). Many critics have highlighted the singer’s troubled connections with Catholicism. In this research, I want to draw attention to “Daoist” themes in Morrissey’s art and personality that are at least as obvious as the Christian “priestly” ones, suggesting that the singer’s peculiar mixture of the ascetic-spiritual and the agnostic-skeptical can be better explained through an exploration of Daoism than through the artist’s presumed tortuous Catholic anti-Catholicism. Gavin Hopps quotes from Harvey Cox’s interpretation of contemporary theology, The Feast of Fools (1969), where Cox writes: “Like the jester, Christ defies custom and scorns crowned heads. Like a wandering troubadour he has no place to lay his head. Like the clown in the circus parade, he satirizes existing authority by riding into town replete with regal pageantry when he has no earthly power” (Cox: 140). Hopps applies this statement to Morrissey, but Cox could as well have disserted about the wandering and mocking Zhuangzi, whose irony and wit combined with sacrifice and renunciation, whose intellectual refinement mixed with carnivalesque absurdity, captures much of the subversive virtue that we find employed by the Anglo-Irish troubadour.

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Morrissey with all his Oscar Wilde books (plus the usual floral extras): "I use flowers because Oscar Wilde used flowers. I really admire the idea of constantly being attached to some form of plant."

    ZHUANGZI    4TH CENT. BC    

(Also Zhuang Zhou or Chuang Tzu) influential Chinese philosopher. The Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese text from the late Warring States period which contains stories and anecdotes. 

The link between Morrissey and Daoism can be conveniently established via Oscar Wilde, whose relationship with Zhuangzi’s philosophy has been documented. The young Wilde wrote one of the first reviews of the Zhuangzi when it appeared translated by Herbert Giles in 1890 and would stay under a “Daoist” influence for decades to come.

It is known that Morrissey’s world view and art have been shaped by Wilde, whose ‘Complete Works’ Morrissey received from his librarian mother at the age of eight with the words: “It’s everything you need to know about life.”  According to Morrissey’s own words, every single line immediately affected him (1984). Many of Morrissey’s texts, as well as aesthetic elements such as the use of flowers, are inspired by Wilde.

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In his review of the Zhuangzi, Wilde suggests “that Chuang Tzu is a very dangerous writer, and the publication of his book in English, two thousand years after his death, is obviously premature, and may cause a great deal of pain to many thoroughly respectable and industrious persons” (1919: 187). For Jerusha McCormack, “Zhuangzi’s thinking was certainly crucial in shaping Wilde’s concept of the dandy” (93). She detects in Wilde principles such as wuqing (non-feeling), a complex psychological state that “is not necessarily a lack of feeling, but the ability to step aside from conventional emotional reactions into a larger, arguably an aesthetic, view of things” (93). In this research I will argue that the phlegmatic attitude initiated by these Daoist principles is present in Morrissey’s art in the form of an “aesthetics of renunciation” or in what I also call the “aesthetics of awkwardness.”

They “think against prevailing conventions in a way that appears to be systematically perverse, hence ‘contrary’ to the dominant discourse,” writes McCormack (77). Morrissey perfectly well fits into this struggle. First, Morrissey fought the decadent and violent working-class culture of his native Stretford (part of the “Victorian knife-plunging Manchester,” as he calls it in his Autobiography); later he fought Thatcher’s England, which was no longer Victorian but the world of a prime minister who was “devoid of either irony or humor [and] intolerant of ambiguity and equivocation” (Campbell: 64). And more broadly speaking, Morrissey combats an individualist, shiny technicolor consumerist culture that lacks humanity.

The themes that I find in Morrissey and which I address in this article from a Daoist point of view are:

  • the art of weakness

  • uselessness

  • roaming or aimless wandering, which Daoism subsumes under the term ‘you’ (遊)

  • anti-essentialism and the “dissolution” of identity

  • authenticity

  • genuine pretending

  • language skepticism

  • the aesthetics of awkwardness

  • anarchism

  • aestheticism


Forthcoming in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture  in 2023

The self-estranging irony, the incorrect behavior, as well as the conviction that aesthetics is more important than ethics, are emblematic of all three: Zhuangzi, Wilde, and Morrissey. Furthermore, all three act in similar contexts: Wilde’s anti-Victorianism mirrors Daoist anti-Confucianism, which sparked his sophisticated anti-conformism. Both Daoism and Wilde fight the puritan earnestness and pedantism that they face in the form of snobs and the careerists. 

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