History Obscured

Over the past couple of years in this space I have talked about how our desire to have history conform to a notion of linear progress has obscured the achievements of people who were supposed to have gained social rights only later. Two years ago I put it this way:

It is much easier to tell the dramatic story of increasing freedom for women– a straight line from corsets and arranged marriages to women’s suffrage, 1970s women’s lib, and then Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and female CEOs– if you leave out the women of previous ages who did the things we imagine they only later gained the right to do.

Another article here called Vanishing Women asks how many exceptions to the rule that women did not work outside the home do we have to come across before we start questioning if the rule is actually valid?

Another example of this surfaced recently, as reported in The Guardian. The title of the article by David Olusoga tells it all really, “Black people have had a presence in our history for centuries. Get over it.

The article describes a twitter storm over a cartoon set in Roman times which depicted a dark-skinned character.

Sensing a politically correct plot to take over British history, one presumably orchestrated by the liberal elite from somewhere deep within their headquarters in the out-of-touch, metropolitan, media bubble, Watson went on the offensive. “I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?” he tweeted.

This started the ball rolling. (If you’d like to read more on my thoughts on the idea of “revisionist history” you can go back to the post History as a Straight Line.)

Olusoga goes on to give an overview of recent scholarship that shows that Roman Britain was more ethnically diverse than many people have assumed. (I recommend a read.)

He concluded his article with a question.

The deeper, more fundamental question is why? Why are some people so affronted by the very idea that the black presence in Britain stretches back so many centuries? Why, even when historical evidence is presented and the opinions of experts given, are they determined to dismiss the facts and, as we have seen in this case, seek to trash the reputation of respected scholars? The refusal to accept that the black presence in Britain has a long and deep history is not just a symptom of racism, it is a form of racism. It is part of a rearguard and increasingly unsustainable defence of a fantasy monochrome version of British history.

The notion that Britain was monochromatic or that “European Christians built this nation” legitimizes the claim of certain groups to be the true inheritors of a society. It is easier for favored groups (and groups that fear falling out of favor) to point to history and tradition than to argue that there is an inherent reason they deserve favored status.

One of the first posts I ever wrote here was inspired by a poem by Beau Sia, and Asian-American who tried to empathize with a woman who got caught up in one of those viral online shamings after posting a video rant about “Asians in the library.” Her mindset, he concluded was:

“I’m so afraid I’ll have to fend for myself without what I’ve been told was mine.”

 

The Fascinations Underlying Oscar’s Ghost

Thank you to John Cooper for making me aware of his detailed article Finding Oscar, which addresses the question of why Oscar Wilde continues to fascinate more than a century after his death.

As Oscar’s Ghost is coming out on the 15th, I’ve been feeling as though I ought to write about what sparked my interest in the lengthy feud between Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas.

What makes a subject grab hold of one’s imagination? Interestingly, I find myself thinking back to my first literary love, Milan Kundera. In high school I devoured the Hitchhikers Guide series by Douglas Adams. In college I discovered Kundera, making him my first favored author as an adult.

I started, as most readers probably do, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being and something in it excited me and caused me to seek out the author’s other books. My favorites were The Joke and Laughable Loves. Having read the books a good three decades ago, I find that I remember my feelings about them more than I can recall what was actually in them. As I am on the road right now with my ballet project, I don’t have access to my books so I can’t look back and see what I highlighted. That is probably for the best, because it is my reaction that I am trying to revisit.

The fuzzy sense I have years later is that Kundera’s books presented society (in his case, communist society) as a kind of game that everyone is forced to play. Because the system is nonsensical it forces everyone, whether they conform or rebel, to live nonsensical lives. The idea that people have control over their lives is laughable, and yet we cannot help but to live as though this were the case. The characters did not understand each other. They acted on wrong assumptions about each other’s motives sometimes with disastrous consequences. Now, as I said, someone with a more recent familiarity with these books may look back and ask “What exactly were you reading again?” Memory is like that.

In looking back to those elements, however, I get a sense of some of the abstract ideas that fueled my interest in the Oscar Wilde circle and the feud between Douglas and Ross. Before I decided to write on the subject, I read a great deal about it. The Wilde story brings into sharp relief the problem of the individual vs. society. Even rebels– people who do not or cannot conform to society– must live within it. It is difficult to see your own society clearly, being immersed in it. Reading vivid descriptions of others at odds with elements of their society, how they try to balance conforming and resisting helps us to understand the larger forces that shape our own lives. In Lord Alfred Douglas you have someone who was favored in every way by his society– except for one.  The internal conflict of someone who is conservative and naturally inclined to back the status quo and who yet cannot conform in a way that his culture deems vital, was of great interest to me. As were the various misunderstandings between him and his once intimate friend Robert Ross and how social forces helped to escalate them.

Before I wrote on the subject, I obviously did a lot of reading, and I found that most people who wrote about the conflicts took sides. There seems to be always a Team Bosie and a Team Robbie. I found it most engaging to try to understand the perspectives of both and how each was prodded by his own situation, personality, assumptions, goals and shortcomings.

 

Pressure of Concealment

If you don’t already, I recommend following Lit Hub. Today they featured an interview with Dani Shapiro in which the author muses on whether or not she would have written her memoir if she’d had the instant gratification of social media at the time.

Most interesting to me was her theory on the origin of powerful writing:

Dani Shapiro: “Adrienne Rich once said that it is that which is under the pressure of concealment that explodes into poetry. So if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and sharing there, there’s no pressure of concealment. And I think good memoir comes out of that place, it comes out of it can’t be said, it can’t be said, it can’t be said, so now I want to try to say it.”

Adrienne Rich’s observation struck me as another version of Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Does the pressure of concealment fuel all art? Probably not, but it can be a powerful engine.

Extraordinary Tales About Ordinary People

“…both Oscar and myself are merely ordinary people who are very fond of one another and very anxious to live peacefully joyously and happily, and without scenes and tragedies and reproaches and all that sort of thing.”-Lord Alfred Douglas, letter to his mother 1894

wilde-douglas

Lord Alfred Douglas’s mother was worried. In 1894 she read Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and it struck a little too close to home. Given her son’s relationship with the older Oscar Wilde, the tale of an older man manipulating a younger to depravity disturbed her and she wrote to both Wilde and her son urging them to end their association.

Bosie responded with two long letters defending his relationship. He explained that Dorian was fiction.

There is not one real point in common after that between Lord Henry with his bitter cynicism, his cruelty, his heartlessness and his selfishness, and Oscar Wilde with his humour, an his loyal kind and forgiving nature which make him altogether more like a grown up boy than the sort of cynical subtle and morbid creature which you want to make him out…Lord Henry is an artificial waxwork figure of what Oscar might be, without his enthusiasm, his humanness, his sympathy and his kind sweet nature…

The fact is that no such person as Lord Henry Wotton ever existed…Nobody wants to murder anyone else’s soul…Oscar has no desire to ruin my soul in order that he may have the pleasure of getting a morbid satisfaction from the contemplation of its ruin, he is merely a very brilliant and very irresponsible and very impulsive creature who is very fond of me, and who enjoys life thoroughly, and who wishes to be as happy as he can under the circumstances in which he finds himself placed. I am extraordinarily fond of him, and he is extraordinarily fond of me, and he wishes me to be successful and happy. He always encourages me as much as he possibly can to work and to do something, and so far from wishing to ruin my soul, or ruin anything else, he doesn’t think of such nonsense at all, and he and I can afford to laugh at all this hysterical twaddle and at the same time to regret that it is able to be a great annoyance a great hindrance and a great discomfort…

The notion that one person could mesmerize another and take control of his soul was not Wilde’s invention. It was found in much of the era’s popular literature. George du Marier turned these anxieties into the most popular novel of the era, Trilby, with its manipulative character Svengali. These stories influenced how people interpreted the world around them. When they looked at Wilde and Douglas the story was clear.

Bosie tried to convince his mother that Wilde did not have undue influence over him, in fact he had more influence over Wilde than the other way around. In truth, like any couple, they influenced each other. This would not be the finding of the courts, however. The legal actions that sent Wilde to jail began when the playwright sued Bosie’s father, Lord Queensberry, for libel for the claim that he was “posing” as a sodomite. To defend Queensberry his legal team had to prove that he had made his statement in the public interest. They did this by arguing that Wilde’s “pose” and his position as a famous writer influenced young men to practice the real vices. This framing persisted throughout Wilde’s criminal trials and beyond.

One of Robert Ross’s challenges as he tried to restore Wilde’s posthumous reputation was to counter the Svengali narrative. The best tools he had in his arsenal were Wilde’s own writings.

Wilde had been playing with the theme of the passionate, destructive love affair in his writing long before he met Douglas. The story of the beheading of John the Baptist at the request of Salome appears three times in the New Testament. It is, as most biblical narratives are, sparse. The longest account is found in Mark 6:14-29. In this account Harod has John arrested at the request of his wife Herodias. Herodias had married Harod after divorcing his half brother Philip and John had decried this as contrary to Jewish law. Herodias would have had John killed but Harod feared him. The opportunity to act came at Herod’s birthday celebration. Herodias’s daughter Salome performed a dance for Herod that pleased him so much he told her he would give her whatever she wanted ‘unto the half of my kingdom.’ Salome went to her mother and consulted with her about what she should ask. Herodias said, ‘the head of John the Baptist.’ Salome did as she was told and Herod, who was less averse to murder than to going back on his word, had no choice but to have John executed and to deliver his head in a charger to the young woman.

In the traditional account, then, Salome is a passive instrument of her mother’s desire for revenge. By the nineteenth century, however, artists had become intrigued with the figure of Salome herself. She was featured in the works of such Romantics as Flaubert, Mallarme and Symons. Two paintings of Salome by Gustave Moreau appear in J.K. Huysman’s novel A Rebours, a book that was highly influential to Wilde. In his play, Wilde used Flaubert’s Greek naming of John, Iokanaan, alternatively spelled Jokanaan.

In Wilde’s conception, Salome is no pawn. She is the one who wants Jokanaan’s head, and not because of his view of her mother’s marriage, but because her desire for him knew no limits. Her lust for him was so strong that she would kiss his mouth even if she had to cut off his head to do it. For Salome Wilde uses language inspired by the Song of Songs while for Jokannan, he draws from Revelation. Thus the language of love is merged with the language of apocalypse. Love destroys its object.

This anihalistic view of love was not inspired by his passionate relationship with Bosie, who he had not yet met when he began composing. It was an artistic myth he already believed, and into which he would write his own love. The concept would find expression again in the Ballad of Reading Gaol as “each man kills the thing he loves” and in De Profundis with Douglas in the role of Salome, the homme fatale whose appetites knew no bounds and whose love was destructive.

De Profundis was Wilde’s response to the notion that he was Lord Henry Wotton. It took the story of Svengali and inverted it. “Dear Bosie” of the letter was based on the emotionally difficult Alfred Douglas– there is no denying he was a difficult man. But the character of Bosie was dramatized and manipulated for literary effect.

Douglas, of course, did not see his relationship in these terms. In his 1894 letter to his mother he wrote, “Surely there is nothing but what is fine and beautiful in such a love as that of two people for one another, the love of the disciple and the philosopher. I think when Oscar’s life comes to be written, as the life of a man of genius and a man who has stamped his age it will be remembered and written about as one of the most beautiful things in the world, as beautiful as the love of Shakespeare and the unknown Mr. W.H… There is no good saying any more except that while I perhaps have no right to say that Oscar Wilde is a good man, neither you nor anyone else has the right to say he is a bad man… Please try and like my friend who is so dear to me.”

He continued to view his relationship in those terms until he was confronted with the unpublished parts of De Profundis years after Wilde’s death.

Late in his life, Bosie told his friend Rupert Croft-Cooke that the thing that bothered him most about De Profundis was the overall tone of the thing, which made his relationship with Oscar into a “solemn sort of thing, crossed with terrible quarrels. But we were laughing most of the time — often at one another.”

The story of the “destructive love affair,” however, has ruled the day. Ideas can spread because they are true or useful. But sometimes an idea retains power not because it is true, but because there is something about it that aids in its transmission. In this case, it is the bias towards drama. De Profundis is a compelling story well-told. When the ancients wanted to preserve their histories through oral folktales they mythologized them. In modern times, a book proposal that is full of drama and conflict will always find an easier path to publication than a book that de-mythologizes.

Just One More Fact…

I can relate to this from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“And then there’s the reference manual on amphibians and reptiles that first crossed her desk in 1994, during an earlier stretch of her career at the Kentucky press. The author in that case, Ms. Salisbury wrote, had spent more than 30 years collecting data for the book. But every time publication seemed imminent, the author would discover a new data point — say, a new span of territory that a lizard might inhabit in the state.”

At some point you just have to declare a book done.

Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Spin

In his 2014 book Wilde in America, David M. Friedman argued that Oscar Wilde invented modern celebrity.  He was the first of what is now a familiar type: the person who seeks fame in order to enable a career rather than as the result of a career. As he put it:

It is a mind-set where everyone thinks they could be famous and, even more to the point, should be. It is a belief system in which “celebrity,” a word that once referred exclusively to persons of achievement—artists, athletes, politicians, and so on, even criminals, who left their mark on history through their deeds—has expanded its meaning to include persons famous merely for being famous, a status won by manipulating the media. It is a worldview where fame isn’t the end product of a career but the beginning of one. It is the part of modern life we call celebrity culture.

Wilde’s greatest creation was arguably the persona of Oscar Wilde. After suffering the public shame of a trial for gross indecency, the document he wrote in prison De Profundis can be read as the author’s mourning process for the loss of that persona.

When he came out of jail he faced what we might today call a serious branding problem. Enter Robert Baldwin Ross. If Wilde was the first modern celebrity then his trusted friend, business advisor and later literary executor was something else. He was the first modern crisis PR manager.

Ross had a great challenge ahead of him. He had to overcome the popular notion that Wilde was a Svengali who lured young men to immoral practices. He had to convince the public at large that Wilde was not dangerous to read. At the same time, he wanted to keep the symbol of Oscar Wilde available to the counter-cultural community of homosexual men, while keeping that aspect from interfering with his goal of a wider market for Wilde’s works. As a crisis PR manager, Ross was incredibly successful. Ross achieved something no one thought possible– he brought the Wilde estate out of bankruptcy, created a growing market for his works, and with the release of an edited version of De Profundis, the British public started to reassess the man and the artist. If it weren’t for Ross’s efforts, it is entirely possible that Wilde would be a much more obscure figure than he is today.

But as a PR manager, Ross was not acting as an archivist or historian, he was practicing spin. Ross edited Wilde’s works in places to remove lines that might be read as dangerous innuendo. As he painstakingly compiled and edited works whose copyrights had been sold and scattered, he created a more unified Wildean literary style in the process.  Beyond that, he crafted a mythology about Wilde. The mythology of Wilde persists to this day.

One of the interesting documents I came across while researching Oscar’s Ghost was a dissertation on the artist Simeon Solomon by Carolyn Conroy.  (Conroy, Carolyn. He Hath Mingled with the Ungoldly: The Life of Simeon Solomon After 1873, With a Survey of the Extant Works. PH.D. Dissertation. University of York, December, 2009.)

Simeon Solomon was an artist whose work, which featured beautiful androgynous youths, was much admired in the Wlde circle. In 1873, at the height of his artistic career Solomon was arrested in a public urinal for attempting “feloniously to commit the abominable crime of buggery.”

Robert Ross wrote the most influential obituary of Solomon. As he told it, Solomon’s arrest was the beginning of a sad decline. After these events the artist was shunned by polite society, his work suffered until he was producing worthless copies of the subjects of his glory days. He ended his life as a poor, friendless alcoholic. If this tragic tale of the brilliant homosexual artist destroyed by the Philistines calls to mind the tragic last years of Oscar Wilde it is no coincidence.
The Ross obituary contains stories of Solomon breaking into a house to rob it while drunk and being admitted to an asylum by friends. Conroy investigated these claims and found that “much of this information is, simply either incorrect or unlikely.” In fact, Conroy found that Solomon was enjoying great popularity in America at the time Ross described him as a shadow of his former self.

The tragic narrative of society destroying its artists in a quest for moral purity served a purpose. It asked the public to consider whether such laws and policies were in the public interest. What is more, it created a compelling narrative at a time when the most popular fiction ended not with happy endings but with tragedy.

But to criticize Ross as a bad historian is to assume he intended to act as a historian. Ross agreed with Wilde that what was important about a story was not its basis in fact, but how it affected the reader. Oscar Wilde wrote in The Critic as Artist, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” By crafting an enduring mythology, he was acting as a consummate and pioneering spin master, perhaps one of the finest ever to work in the field.

Interestingly, even Lord Alfred Douglas, at a time when he was at odds with Ross, wrote that he believed such mythologizing had probably been necessary.

But mythologizing does not exist in a vaccuum. In crafting the narrative to the best effect for Wilde, Ross was also impacting Douglas. In my next article, I will talk about that aspect of the story.