Re-Learning to Not Speak

vintage-war-censorship-posterThere was a poem by Marge Piercy that I responded to when I read it in college. It was called “Unlearning to Not Speak.” (I recalled the title as “Unlearning Not to Speak.”) An excerpt:

Phrases of men who lectured her
drift and rustle in piles:
Why don’t you speak up?
Why are you shouting?
You have the wrong answer,
wrong line, wrong face.

I’ve been writing lately, so I haven’t been posting much. But that isn’t the only reason. I haven’t known what to post. Or I haven’t wanted to. The truth is, speaking in public feels more fraught than it ever did before. Them are fightin’ words! Doesn’t it seem like the bulk of cable news involves catching public figures saying controversial things on Twitter? It is a nationwide game, like Pokemon Go.

We would all like to be recognized, and we want online interaction, at least of the positive kind. The best way to do that is to choose an audience and stay in your lane. You will not be attacked if you say things that people already agree with. (Or if you are, you can write off those people as “the others” and rally your base with pithy comebacks.) You might even be re-tweeted or liked. It’s easy enough to do: here is my take on what y’all are discussing. It’s reaching the same conclusion but in my words.

What becomes weird is when you say something just a bit outside of the discourse and people can’t process until they figure out what side you’re on, or they make assumptions that because you said this you must also mean that and therefore you’re one of them and… click…unfollow. I can’t even listen to you. That’s called “assumption creep.”

I had a weird conversation with a friend some time ago during one of the government shut downs. She had posted a petition saying members of congress should not take a salary while the government was shut down. I responded that, as most members of congress were multimillionaires, that would be more symbolic than anything and that it would be more effective to threaten their chances of keeping their seats. I went round and round with this friend asking me what I really meant. What I really meant, honestly, was that I thought there were more effective tactics to end a shut down, less symbolic. But what do you mean? What are you really saying? What is your political angle? Honest to God, I wasn’t saying anything but what I was saying.

I don’t fear being attacked by people who disagree with me as much as I fear being misunderstood by those who do not. It feels terrible to have someone take something you wrote or said, explain that you meant or said something else, and then attack you for it. I find these days I spend way too much time explaining what I am not saying along with what I am. I can’t even say that I am often criticized or attacked. But I am a regular witness to verbal attacks on Twitter and in blog comments, where giving and taking offense is sport. I’ve developed a reflex, the same way I know not to put my hand on a stove burner whether it appears hot or cold.

You have the wrong answer,
wrong line, wrong face.

To really explore ideas, the best place is a diary, where you don’t have to think about anyone looking over your shoulder.

I don’t think I am alone in this polarized era in feeling as though every subject is potentially controversial. It looks like a group of academics is planning to launch a journal where scholars can publish anonymously so they can express their controversial views. Anonymity makes sense. Then readers can, at least in theory, debate ideas and not comment upon the kind of person they believe are making them.

If a lot of people are feeling like I am: re-learning to not speak, then I wonder where our novel ideas will come from.




Review of the Film “The Happy Prince”

IMG_0683 Finally, “The Happy Prince” has come to Michigan.

First, I must congratulate Rupert Everett for taking this project on in the first place. Oscar Wilde has inspired an entire industry of books, journals, scholarly works, and films. That means there are a lot of people out there who are experts on the subject and who have a sense of ownership in one way or another in the story and how it is told. When you tackle such a well-known figure you open yourself up to criticism in a way you don’t when you are telling a fictional tale.

If the film has a motif is is the line that appears in the trailer: “Why does one run towards ruin?” Everett’s Wilde is a man who seems to revel in his own self-destruction to the dismay of the loyal friends who are at a loss of how to help him and who all seem to be pulled down into his wake.

I was especially impressed by the amount of nuance was brought to the characters of Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas played by Colin Morgan and Robert “Robbie” Ross played by Edwin Thomas even though neither relationship had a huge amount of screen time. It was refreshing to see Wilde and Douglas depicted as a real couple, not just figures in an operatic drama. They clearly have a history, love for each other, and a level of comfort with one another. They enjoy one another’s company.

It was refreshing as well to see a Robert Ross who was loyal and helpful to his friend, but who also got fed up with him at times. In the 1997 film “Wilde” Robbie Ross is entirely selfless. He doesn’t seem to have a jealous bone in his body. He is depicted comforting the poet John Gray after he’s been pushed aside in Oscar’s affections by Bosie. (In life, Ross disliked Gray.) Edwin Thomas’s Ross is a caregiver, but he does not possess infinite patience. There is a subtle moment in the film where Robbie has been in Paris, where the exiled Oscar lives, and it is clear that he has been avoiding him. Who could blame him?

That leads to one of the greatest strengths of the film. Oscar is the central focus of the drama, but he is by no means a hero. He is often unfair to his friends and careless of their feelings, and yet it is also clear that there is something in him that made so many people love him.

In many ways, Stephen Fry, from the 1997 biopic is a more ideal Wilde. He has a physical resemblance and he was believable as a wit and story teller. It is hard to imagine better casting. I enjoyed that performance very much, but if there is one flaw in that cinematic version of Oscar it is that Oscar has no flaws, except, perhaps a weakness for beautiful, spoiled Bosie. He is dragged to a brothel to please Bosie, but he is uncomfortable and passive. Bosie screams and rails at him, and he is patient and calls him “darling boy.”

I always prefer stories where there are no clear-cut heroes and villains, where there are messes and people are trying to deal with them as best they can; where people’s own personalities and shortcomings are part of the challenge.

In “The Happy Prince,” Oscar’s flaws are front and center. He is hurt, but he also wounds. He revels in the underworld and he finds humanity there. Both films use Wilde’s children’s story “The Happy Prince” as a narrative device. In the 1997 film it is used to show the tragedy of Wilde’s estrangement from his sons. In Everett’s film it takes on additional poignancy showing what a human place “the gutter” is.

The film is dizzying– quite literally at times– it uses a spinning camera effect a bit too much, but it does give the disoriented feel of a man in failing health, drinking too much, and looking back on his life, which is what Everett was going for. That choice means that some of the subtle moments of the supporting cast go by in a blur.

There was a lovely scene between Emily Watson, as Oscar’s wife Constance, and Edwin Thomas as Robbie Ross. Robbie has scolded Oscar for how he is treating his wife, expecting her to support him financially while he lives with the lover who brought ruin on his family. He says something like “you write her one beautiful letter and you think everything will be ok.” It is clear that he is talking as much about his relationship with Oscar, who treated him badly and then tried to win him back with beautifully-written letters. This is followed by a scene with Constance and Robbie in which Constance asks why Robbie is trying to help her. In that moment Constance realizes Robbie, too, understands what it means to love Oscar and what a terrible price comes with it. It would have been interesting to see the relationship between those characters play out more, but it would have been a different film. “The Happy Prince” is a story about Oscar, and Oscar’s isolation.

The film works well for someone like me, who knows a lot about the Wilde story already.  I was not thrown by the constant moving backwards and forwards in time. The same could not be said for the person who came to the film with me. She knew a bit more than some audience members would, because she read my book, but was still disoriented by some of the brief flashbacks that for her lacked context. There are quick references to Wilde’s prison manuscript “De Profundis,” but if you didn’t already know, the significance of this would be lost. Does it matter? I’m far too seeped in the story to be able to view it that way at this point.

It is also, given the constraints of the medium, quite good history. There are people out there who can say exactly what happened here or there and what color socks Oscar was wearing at the moment. I, myself, could tell you Oscar’s standing breakfast order at the Paris hotel where he died, but I won’t. That would just be annoying. There was little that I bumped on factually.

There were places where Everett filled things in and made choices where the truth can’t be known. For example, Oscar and Bosie lived together for a time in Naples, Italy. They parted because people on both sides cut off their allowances. In order to get the tap back on, they had to agree not to live together any more. They probably had an argument about this. No one else was in the room, so we can only guess what was said. I found Everett’s idea of how this went to be compelling, although I fill it in differently in my own imagination.

There is another scene that I would probably not bring up at all, except that I have been asked about it. I am not sure what counts as a spoiler in a film where the history is known and it jumps about in time, but this is towards the end of the film so: spoiler alert: Oscar Wilde dies.

At Oscar’s funeral, Bosie and Robbie get into an argument. This didn’t happen. In fact, Bosie and Robbie were at something like a high point in their friendship at this time. Even though they had clashed a bit when Robbie was negotiating between Oscar and his wife over the allowance, that argument had blown over quickly. (Both Robbie and Bosie often argued with friends.) Between that time and Oscar’s death, Bosie had stayed in London where he “practically lived” at Robbie’s house. At the time Bosie was grateful for Robbie’s help with logistics and Robbie said nothing negative about Bosie regarding the funeral. The friends wrote each other intimate letters about boys before and after. There were little fault lines in their friendship that would eventually crack into chasms, but that had not yet happened. Even so, I was not bothered by this in the movie. Given the dreamlike nature of the film, I think it can be interpreted as addressing the subtext of the relationship, and some of that, like the break up at Naples, falls into the category of what can’t really be entirely known.



Someone Tried to Use My Humorous Book to Prove Global Warming is Good For You

1836709.jpgLike many writers, I have enough of an ego to want to know when one of my books gets a mention somewhere. I was surprised today when I got an alert saying that one of my older books The 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life and What You Can Do About Them (Broadway Books, 2004) was mentioned in a current article. I was even more surprised to find that the title was being cited as scientific evidence that global warming is good for you.

Let me begin by explaining that The 100 Most Dangerous Things was not my choice for a title. I can’t remember my working title, I don’t think it was that great, but the idea behind the book is that you’re more likely to be hurt by an ordinary, everyday object like your desk, than by a shark precisely because you interact with desks every day. Sharks, not so much.

Publisher’s Weekly summed up the book by saying, ” Ultimately, it’s a clarion call for common sense, written with playful irreverence and several eye rolls at our society’s inflated hysteria at risks and our bumbling attempts to diffuse them. The advice is useful–and often cheeky. To minimize the threat of germ-ridden currency, for example, Lee suggests we send her our money immediately.”

Some statistically minded folk have found fault with the book for saying, for example, that teddy bears are “more dangerous” than grizzly bears (more people, in pure numbers, are injured by toys) when it should, to be accurate, compare how many of the people who come into close contact with grizzly bears get injured compared to how many who come into contact with teddy bears. This is a valid criticism, but the point is, I don’t care. I knew that when I wrote it. I was trying to find a bit of humor in our inelegant accidents: The same type of humor that comes from watching someone slip on a banana peel, which, of course, I examined in the book:

If cartoons and comics are to be believed, banana peels are one of the most dangerous things on earth. People slip on them left and right. While we accept this as a truism, no recent documentation exists to support the theory. The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which catalogs all manner of injuries related to consumer products, does not track banana peel related falls. “Fruits and vegetables fall under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration,” they say. The Food and Drug Administration, however, has no records of large numbers of people slipping on banana peels. Could it be that the enormous publicity surrounding the dangerous practice of snacking on bananas and leaving the peels on the floor has made our lives safer?

In fact, it may be banana-cide that put an end to generations of people going wooo-aaaa-hhhhh. The Gros Michel was a variety of banana that was bigger and sweeter than the cavendish variety we’re used to seeing in our North American and European supermarkets. Banana authorities believe that the Gros Michel was the inspiration for the falling-on-a-banana slapstick routine. This tasty but slippery fruit was wiped out by a crop disease in the 1950s or 60s making it safe to walk without falling once again.

Wrong! All you need to slip and fall is a floor and gravity as 12,000 Americans will attest. Or they would attest, if they could, because that is the number that die in falls each year. Many of the accident statistics you will find in other chapters– injuries by tables, office supplies, chairs, stereos, drum sets– actually involve people falling down and crashing into them.

That should give you a sense of the tone of the book. I put a lot of work into researching it, but never expected it would show up cited as an authoritative source on scientific matters. But then maybe it is not so surprising given the argument put forward in the article– we shouldn’t try to stop global warming, we should be celebrating it.

The article appears on a web site which Media Bias Fact Check describes as an “extreme right website that peddles conspiracy theories such as Obama being an Islamic Terrorist and 9/11 as an inside job. They also promote climate change denial and creationism.”

The author of the piece makes the case that as more people die in extremely cold weather than in extremely hot weather, global warming is actually a benefit to humanity. (Just get rid of all that snow and you’ll have fewer skiing accidents too!) In support of this theory the article’s author pulls out this factoid from my book: In the United Kingdom, between forty thousand and fifty thousand more deaths occur during the winter months than in summer months.

It is probably worth mentioning what the entire entry in my book had to say about this. The reason I mentioned England’s winter mortality at all is that more people die from the effects of cold weather in Britain than in much colder places like Russia and Finland. The number of excess deaths in the cold months in mild London is greater than the number of excess deaths during the cold months in Yakutsk, Russia– the coldest city on Earth. No one in Yakutsk has ever been shocked to discover it was cold outside. They are careful about avoiding exposure to cold, whereas in places with milder winters, people go out in light-weight jackets and, as their mom’s tried to warn them, catch their deaths of cold.

So if you were citing the entire entry, you could just as easily make the case that another ice age would be good for our health because it would plunge us into such extreme cold that we’d never forget to dress in layers again. Both arguments strike me as having equal merit.



That Box Marked “Provisional Ballots”

There is an election news story that has been showing up in my various social networks. It caused me to reflect again on one of my regular topics– how the news stories that get shared the most tend to be the ones that fit a popular narrative. There is also a bias towards the dramatic that can make us prone to exaggerations. If you can evoke an emotional response with a story: anger, joy, fear, Schadenfreude, outrage, humor– and you can do so in a way that reinforces an existing narrative, you have the makings of a clickable story.

The story of the day: a teacher discovering a ballot box left behind at a Florida polling site has all these ingredients. It comes in a race with a razor-thin margin, in which all sides are watching to make sure there are no irregularities. It stokes fears of mishandling of ballots and lost votes, whether deliberately or through carelessness. It elicits outrage. And it happened in Florida, which adds to an existing perception that Florida is rife with election problems, an idea that dates back to the hanging chads of the Bush-Gore race. So this one is getting shared a lot. For this reason, I think it behooves us to step back and examine the story a bit more closely.

I first read about this on The Hill, but I have seen it reported in essentially the same way in other publications. A teacher told reporters that she had found a box marked “provisional ballots” left behind in the elementary school that had served as a polling place the previous day. She said she was worried that it might contain uncounted ballots.

If it did, that would be a major story of incompetence. If you only read the headline (and most people only do read the headline) you are bound to assume that this is exactly what happened. A box full of uncounted ballots was left behind. The thing is, there is nothing in the story that confirms that is what happened.  It says that the teacher worried that is what it was, and she contacted the local paper and her state representative, but not the Elections Office. The state representative did contact the Elections Office and was told the box probably contained blank ballots. The story concludes:

The report arrives as races for Senate and governor in Florida have tightened, raising the prospect that the two contests could be headed to a recount.

The Broward County Supervisor Of Elections Office did not immediately return a request for comment from The Hill.

Whether that box contains ballots, and whether it was left by mistake, is knowable, but it would require waiting to talk to someone involved with that polling place who could confirm what happened and what was supposed to happen.

Let me offer an alternative explanation for that box. I work the polls in Michigan, so I can’t speak to what happens in Florida. But in the precinct where I work, the ballots are tallied and all of the voted ballots, the provisional ballots, and the blank ballots are accounted for and taken back to the clerk’s office in a special sealed container. The box into which the voted ballots originally fell (now empty) is left behind in the school along with various other supplies. Someone comes by later and picks the stuff up.

So one possibility is that the box labeled “provisional ballots” was used for that on election day, but was then emptied. It was then filled with left-over supplies of some kind, or left empty.  When it was closed up again it locked, and it was left there on purpose but had not yet been picked up, or it was mistakenly left behind.

I don’t know that this is what happened, but it’s as much a possibility as the alternative: that someone made a major mistake and left a locked box of voted and uncounted provisional ballots at the polling place. My guess is that if there was a major gaffe that we’ll hear more about it, but if there was an innocent explanation there will not be a follow up story.

Arguments for Oscar: The Director’s Cut

A silver cigarette case that Lord Alfred Douglas gave to Oscar Wilde when they were reunited after Wilde got out of prison is coming up for auction again. I knew about this gift from Bosie to Oscar from a description of it from the last time it was sold.

Etched into the case is a piece of a poem by John Donne:

The Phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us, we two being one are it
So to one neutral thing both sexes fit
We die and rise the same and prove
Mysterious by this love.

What I don’t think I realized (or assimilated) when I first read about this object was that it was one of the things left behind at the hotel where Oscar Wilde died. (Others being some shirts that were at the laundry, some books, and a set of false teeth.) That Oscar carried this object with him until he died, rather than, say pawning it, re-gifting it, or using it to pay a prostitute, is at least a little bit telling.

The subject of Wilde and prison got me to thinking about a bit of Oscar’s Ghost that didn’t make it into the final cut. While Wilde was in prison both Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross wrote defenses of him that were not published at the time. In the outtake that follows, I compared their approaches:


To correct the prevailing narrative, Bosie would have to make the world understand the depth of Wilde’s love for him, and the sacrifices he was willing to make for it. He wrote impassioned pleas in Wilde’s defense and bold declarations of the beauty of same sex love. His tone was idealistic, romantic and often melodramatic.

Douglas had, for some time, lived in such a protected world of like-minded people he had little sense of how his professions of devotion to Oscar Wilde, and excerpts from his love letters, would sound to the general public. To Douglas they were pure beauty. To the world they were either humorous or sickening. Because Douglas was seen either as Wilde’s unwitting victim, or as a fellow deviant who had escaped jail only because of his title, no one was inclined to listen to what he had to say.

Bosie was not the only one to write a spirited defense of Wilde. Early in 1896, Ross read a report on the New Year’s sermon of Rev. John Clifford, a prominent Baptist preacher who had used the opportunity to pronounce the death of aestheticism which he said had been exposed and condemned by the imprisonment of Wilde.

The two then-unpublished arguments are remarkable both for what they have in common, and how they differ. Like Douglas, Ross made a point of expressing pride in his relationship with Wilde. Douglas had written “While I am still young and bold, let me put myself once and for all on the side of honesty and declare that I am proud to be what I am, proud to have been so much loved by a great man, and proud to have suffered so much for him.”

In his letter to Rev. John Clifford, Ross wrote: “I rejoice to say that I am one of Mr. Oscar Wilde’s greatest friends.”

Douglas never learned the skill that Wilde had in spades, that of tailoring a message to a particular audience. Wilde once famously said, “give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.” The masks he put on for the press, for the parlor, for the theater audience, for the reader did a better job of expressing the truth than they would have if they were unmitigated. Bosie was always unmasked. (“Unpoliced” as Shaw would write.) He did not self-censor. He did not consider context. His truth was his truth and he would speak it.

So Bosie’s article contains all of the arguments he had pent up inside– in addition to a bold defense of same sex love came his unvarnished bitterness for his father, his outspoken criticism of the trials, and an indictment of the hypocrisy of the English people. The result was an article that argued both that Wilde was innocent of the charges against him and that anyway there was nothing wrong with love between men.

Ross, on the other hand, was well aware of the biases of his audience. Instead of trying to justify homosexuality, he made a case for charity for the condemned, pointing out that Christ came to save the sinners not “to redeem the moral from the contamination of wicked people” adding that it was very uncharitable of a minister to attack someone who was suffering during the holiday season. (Bosie, incidentally, had also published an article for the British public that used this “fair play” line. Wilde would criticize it as insincere and formal in De Profundis.)

Ross had been moved to write by the minister’s condemnation of Wilde’s art. In answer to Clifford’s statement that “art for art’s sake was exposed and condemned by the imprisonment of the high priest of aestheticism” Ross listed Christian martyrs whose ideas had not been “exposed and condemned” by their prosecution and deaths. He then offered to send Clifford copies of Wilde’s works.

Some years ago after the appearance of Mr. Oscar Wilde’s novel Dorian Gray in Protestant and puritan Scotland it was my good fortune to hear a Presbyterian minister preach on the moral of that wonderful story. More than one Non-conformist paper praised the novel on moral grounds…At all events I would ask you to judge for yourself & then give your unbiased opinion not on Mr. Wilde but on his works.

Where Ross wrote as an admirer of the artist, Douglas wrote as one who loved the man:

I, for my part, love him for the uniform sweetness of his character, the extraordinary goodness of his heart, and his eternal and inexhaustible tenderness for me. I love him for his magnificent intellect, his genius and his verve. He had taught me everything that is worth knowing. He has given me a little of the secret of his infallible instinct, which never overlooked what was fine and which was never taken in by what was bad (I am speaking of art and not of morals, of course). He diverted my attention from what was vulgar and tedious in life, to lead it towards what was beautiful. He showed me the strength and might of the intellect, its superior emotive force, he taught me to know the good works form the bad. He armed me against cant, gave me a philosophy of life, he made my life worth living…

Ross’s editorial was the earliest example of what would become his main technique in his life-long quest to get Oscar’s works accepted again in society. He would separate the artist from the man, promote the art, and try to downplay and conceal the more “unsavory” aspects of the Wilde story. In order to do this successfully, it became increasingly important for him to conceal his own sexuality. If he did not, his efforts on Wilde’s behalf would be seen as special pleading.

Whether he had made a conscious decision or not, Ross’s own literary ambitions were put on hold when Wilde was arrested. Wilde’s fate had been sealed as much by his writings and his literary success as by his sexual peccadillos and this had a profound effect on the friend whose conversations had shaped The Portrait of Mr. W.H. He had become wary of revealing the erotic energy that had been behind his youthful creativity, but he found that he had trouble writing anything “in which the heroine is not a beautiful boy.”

“I do not write now,” he told Max Beerbohm. When he finally did return to writing, he focused almost entirely on satire and criticism, forms that revealed little about their authors. Although he would gain some prominence in this field, most of his real creative energy would be devoted to advancing the careers of other artists.

Happy 162nd George Bernard Shaw

Shaw Gifts One of the things that set me off on the journey that became the book “Oscar’s Ghost” was reading George Bernard Shaw’s correspondence with Lord Alfred Douglas edited by Mary Hyde.

It is a book that fascinated me, not only for how vividly the letters revealed the characters of their writers, but also for what seemed to me to be an uplifting message about friendship between people who have nothing in common. Shaw and Douglas sparred over the editing of Frank Harris’s “Oscar Wilde.” Oscar was a topic that tended to bring out Douglas’s defensiveness and prickliness. But they always came back to treating each other with affection.

Shaw called Douglas “Childe Alfred” and coined one of my favorite descriptions of an aspect of Douglas’s personality that remained into his senior years: “blazing boyishness.”  He wrote to Mrs. Alfred Douglas “Alfred is a psychological curiosity. Sometimes he is possessed by his father, sometimes by his mother; often by both simultaneously. Add to this that his age varies from five to fifty without a word of warning. But you know this a thousand times better than I do.”

Shaw, who also had a difficult relationship with his father, was sympathetic to Douglas’s familial bitterness, but he did not have patience for the grudge Douglas continued to hold against Robert Ross.

“Ross did not get his testimonial for nothing,” he wrote, referring to a public letter of support signed by hundreds of luminaries, including Shaw after Douglas had tried to expose Ross’s homosexuality in a libel action. The testimonial had always stuck in Douglas’s craw.

“Only a great deal of good nature on his part could have won over that distinguished and very normal list of names to give public support to a man who began with so very obvious a mark of the beast on him. A passage in one of my prefaces on the influence of artistically cultivated men on youths who have been starved in that respect…was founded on a conversation I had with Ross one afternoon at Chartres in which he described the effect produced on him by Wilde, who, in the matter of style, always sailed with all his canvas stretched. Let Ross alone: the world has had enough of that squabble.”

He later wrote to Douglas, “The one thing that no man can afford, and that nobody but a fool insists on carrying is a grievance. Besides, what claim had Oscar on you or anyone else that it should be a reproach to us that we did not spend the rest of our lives holding his hand after he disgraced himself?”

(Of course they did have claims on one another which could not be acknowledged in that era.)

If you have not seen it, George Bernard Shaw wrote a very interesting letter in 1889 in the wake of the Cleveland Street scandal. It was sent to the editor of Truth, but was not published. He argued that “we may presently be saddled with the moral responsibility for monstrously severe punishments inflicted…[on those] whose conduct, however nasty and ridiculous, has been perfectly within their admitted right as individuals.”

After the familiar discussion of the ancient Greeks and the culture in schools, which always came up in such conversations in the era, Shaw appealed to the champions of individual rights “to join me in a protest against a law by which two adult men can be sentenced to twenty years penal servitude for a private act, freely consented and desired by both, which concerns themselves alone.”

Being Shaw, he brought his argument around to socialism and women’s rights. “My friend, Mr. Parke… is menaced with proceedings which would never have been dreamt of had he advanced charges–socially much ore serious–of polluting rivers with factory refuse, or paying women wages that needed to be eked out to subsistence point by prostitution.”

It is fascinating then to read Shaw’s discussions with Lord Alfred Douglas– who was the conservative of the pair–a believer in sin and the evils of liberalism and women’s suffrage–debating the events of Oscar Wilde’s life and their meaning, among other topics. (Shaw had the chutzpah to believe he understood Wilde much better that Douglas did.)

So again, I recommend the book, and raise a glass to Shaw this evening, won’t you?





Bosie’s Birthday

PhotoFunia-1540219502 Another year has gone by. Another anniversary of Lord Alfred Douglas’s birth. Time once again for the “I am the love that dares not speak its name” tweets and the blog posts about mad, bad Bosie– “Oscar Wilde’s downfall” and “the original evil queen.”

I didn’t know what to get him, especially as he is long gone.  If he got his wish he is a child in heaven. So instead, a little something for you. An excerpt from a French interview conducted by George Docquois published in Le Journal the day before Wilde and Alfred Taylor were found guilty of gross indecency. It is one of those sources that annoyingly comes up after you’ve put a book to bed.

Some of the language here is a bit clunky. This is because it is Lord Alfred Douglas speaking in French, which is probably imperfect, and this author translates it back into English. (Consult the part of Oscar’s Ghost that talks about Douglas’s translation of Salome for more on this sort of thing.)

Docquois spoke to the young exile at the Hotel de La Poste. He was 25 years old, but appeared to the reporter to be about twenty. “He is tall,” Docquois wrote, “At first sight, from head to toe, he appears to me to be blond: blond of hair, blond of skin, blond of habits. Very much in harmony with this general blond impression, three soft hues: the celestial blue of his eyes, the pink in the thread of his linen tie, the mauve of a small, fine handkerchief at the edge of his jacket pocket.”

One of the most notable parts of Docquois’ description of Douglas, is that the writer was most impressed by his “gentleness and sense of absolute calm.” With the exception of his nose, which made his face appear long, his face was “that of a mystic.” Something that didn’t quite go with “the ecstasy of his eyes.”

Douglas told Doquois that he had been in Paris for three days, and had been trying to avoid journalists, although he had just published a letter in the Temps the previous day. It is interesting that he told Doquois that he’d come to Paris because Wilde’s lawyers had told him he might be called to testify and he didn’t want to do that.  (Everything I came across in my research seemed to suggest that he made a nuisance of himself insisting he be given the chance to testify, which the lawyers were against.)

Much of the interview was taken up with questions about Douglas’s relationship with his father.  “You are ignoring what an entirely abominable man the Marquis of Queensberry is,” he said.  He said that until the age of 12 he’d seen his father maybe 20 times, and from what he observed of his manners towards his son, he wondered if he was his son at all. (He and his father often grumbled that they could not be related to each other, no one else in the world had any doubt.) He corrected by saying that of course he knew he was his son, as his mother was a saint. After more of the familiar complaints, he looped his brother Percy into the argument: “My brother detests the marquis as much as I do.” Douquis tried to find a way to broach the sensitive subject of the young man’s relationship with Oscar Wilde.

Douglas said that Wilde did not have the “anti-physical passions” that people believed. “It is only that he is an original being and a fantastic artist. He is always searching out emotions but it is only for ‘moral singularity.’*  So he would love to chat with an assassin and would happily invite him to dine in his room. This would involve danger. He believes this would be truly fun.”

Asked whether The Picture of Dorian Grey proved that Wilde engaged in “unnatural acts” he replied that Balzac had described in Un Passion du Desert the love of a soldier for a panther. “And I don’t believe that Balzac has ever slept with a panther.”

(This observation pre-dates Wilde’s famous line about “feasting with panthers” from De Profundis.)

Finally, Douglas was asked to describe his friendship with Wilde from his perspective. At this Douglas became suddenly animated. “I am not saying that it did not have an exceptional dimension. I admit that the affection that I have for him is extraordinary. Let’s call it romantic. There is no greater joy for me than dining with Oscar Wilde when he is in good form. Our two souls truly communicate it is like something extra-terrestrial. Here, that might seem suspicious, but it is nothing but angelic. And it is now, as we have suffered for one another, that we are most determined not to be separated from one another. Before, I was connected to him for a kind of unique pleasure of a dilettante. Now I am tied to him even more by the persecution.”


*This is a literal translation of the text, and I’m sure there must be a better expression, but I couldn’t come up with it in the moment.