Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves

In one of his trials for gross indecency, Oscar Wilde was asked to comment on a phrase he had written in an Oxford publication edited by his friend Lord Alfred Douglas.

“If one tells the truth one is sure sooner or later to be found out.”

Wilde responded, “Yes, I think that is a very pleasing paradox, but I don’t set any high store on that as an axiom.”

This drew a laugh from the crowd.

I think of this when I reflect on the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The ballad, written after Wilde’s release from the jail, vividly recalled the execution by hanging of a fellow prisoner who had been convicted of murdering his wife. In the poem Wilde reflects upon the nature of guilt and innocence. The difference between the free and the prisoner, the prisoner and the condemned are matters of degree not of character. Each man is capable, under the right circumstances, of the same crime.

So with curious eyes and sick surmise
We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.

The most famous stanza of the poem is this one:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

The line was an allusion to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, reversed in typical Wildean fashion. In the play, Bassanio asks “Do all men kill the things they do not love?”  “Each man kills the thing he loves” is beautiful and affecting as poetry, but I am not sure I set any high store on it as an axiom. There are contexts, certainly, in which it is true, but I do not think it to be a general truism about the nature of love.

It was, however, all too true of Wilde’s life. No one who loved him emerged unscathed, just as he had been damaged by the one he most loved. It all began when a young man fell in love. His outraged father did everything in his power to stop what he saw as the unnatural and deviant influence of Wilde over him.

Years later that young man, Lord Alfred Douglas would remember his role in in Wilde’s imprisonment as “the cruel position of being, just because I was as God made me, the innocent cause of the ruin of my friend.”

The ballad was written during a brief post-prison period when Wilde and Douglas were sharing a house in Naples. The reunion had infuriated the friends and families of both men. It definitively ended any hope that Wilde would reunite with his wife, Constance, who had seen her family and her way of life torn apart by the trials.

By his own account, Douglas repeatedly asked Wilde what “each man kills the thing he loves” meant. The line cut both ways, and Douglas must have been trying to figure out whether Wilde regretted the damage he had done to his young love or the damage that his young love had done to him.

Wilde’s reply was “you ought to know.”

ConstancelloydAlthough Constance was deeply wounded by her husband’s return to the infamous aristocrat, she loved The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

“[Oscar] says that he loved too much and that that is better than hate!” she wrote to a friend.  “This is true abstractedly, but his was an unnatural love, a madness that I think is worse than hate. I have no hatred for him, but I confess that I am afraid of him.”

A few days later she wrote to the same friend and asked “… Have you see Arthur Symons’ review of the Ballad in the last Saturday Review? I think it I excellent and the best that has appeared and I would like to know what you think of it when you have seen it.”

Franny Moyle, who wrote the biography Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde, found this a bit contradictory. “Quite why Constance continued to show pride in her husband’s work, in spite of his condemnation of her, and quite why she continued to provide for him are difficult questions,” Moyle wrote.

I doesn’t seem mysterious at all to me. “Each man kills the thing he loves.”  It was as closest thing to a confession and an apology as she was to receive after her husband reunited with Douglas. She died in April, 1898.  Wilde died two years later.

And alien tears will fill for him,
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

There was still a tragic third act to come. After Wilde’s death, two of his closest friends would spend years locked in furious conflict. Robert Ross, Wilde’s literary executor, was also his former lover, perhaps his first male lover. Neil McKenna in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde makes the case that Wilde already had some experience in this arena, but Wilde certainly led Ross to believe he was the first whether it was true or not. (Wilde was always less concerned with the veracity of a story than the effect it had on its listener.)  In any case, it was Ross who introduced Wilde to London’s underground world of men who loved men. When Alfred Douglas entered the picture, he and Ross became fairly good friends. (McKenna even suggests that Douglas and Ross may have been lovers.)

Years after Wilde’s death, Ross and Douglas would do battle over Ross’s handling of Wilde’s prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis. The drama is too long to recount here in detail, but if you want the whole story I recommend Caspar Wintermans’ Alfred Douglas: A Poet’s Life and His Finest Work. The short version is that Douglas had been unaware that the personal parts of Wilde’s letter to him existed until they were provided to a biographer by Ross and later used in a court case defending the biography against Douglas’s libel suit. Ross donated the manuscript to the British Museum to be published after Douglas’s death. Douglas wanted to write his own answer to the letter, but Ross, as Wilde’s executor, would not allow Douglas to publish quotes from it. Douglas felt that as the letter was addressed to him, he was legally and morally its owner. The letter, written when Wilde was in great turmoil in prison and with the mistaken belief that Douglas had abandoned him, painted an unflattering portrait.

Reading the Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, it becomes clear that Wilde often created edited versions of his persona for different friends. In particular, Wilde tried to downplay his interest in Lord Alfred Douglas to Ross. It is understandable that he would do this. Ross was not only Wilde’s sometime lover (McKenna believes they renewed their sexual relationship after Wilde’s release and before Douglas came back into the picture) but also the liaison between the playwright and his estranged family and the man who controlled Wilde’s finances.

Ross truly believed that Douglas had always been the pursuer in the relationship with Wilde, because this was the impression Wilde wanted to give him. Douglas knew what Ross could not: That after his release from prison, as Wilde was writing to Ross saying that Douglas’s persistent letters“terrified” him, Wilde was actually encouraging Douglas, making plans for a reunion and could not resist writing to him every single day. Ross believed the De Profundis account with few reservations. Wilde had never given him any cause not to.

Lord Alfred Douglas was self-centered enough to believe that anyone who did anything that affected him negatively had done it to him. We should not make the same mistake. Although Robert Ross’s actions with regards to De Profundis were quite unfair to Douglas, it is wrong to assume that this was his intent. Those sympathetic to Douglas tend to paint Ross as driven by romantic jealousy, and the battle that would erupt between the two men is presented as a fight over possession of Oscar Wilde’s ghost.

If Ross harbored bitter jealousy towards Douglas, there is little evidence of it. The two friends occasionally quarreled–friends of Douglas inevitably did– but none of the arguments leading up to his revealing of De Profundis to biographers was enough to make Ross want to destroy his former friend or start a war with him. What was really at stake for Ross was not posthumous ownership of Oscar Wilde, it was absolution. Ross believed he had been the one who introduced Wilde to homosexual practices. Although Ross did not share Wilde’s attraction to danger and “rough trade,” it was Ross who introduced Wilde to Maruice Schwabe, who in turn introduced Wilde to the panderer Alfred Taylor, which was the ultimate cause of Wilde’s imprisonment. (Contrary to popular belief, he was not actually jailed for his relationship with Douglas.) Ross feared that he had sent Wilde down the path to his ruin. Ross once said that the reason he was so driven to restore Wilde’s literary reputation and to help his family was because he felt responsible for what had happened. He wanted to fix what he feared he had broken.

According to letters he wrote to friends and family at the time, Douglas, too, felt guilt and remorse over his role in Wilde’s downfall. He had been assured by Wilde’s own letters, however, that the playwright did not blame him but “the unjust gods alone.”

Ross had his own comforting document– De Profundis. There was the proof that Wilde did not blame Ross for leading him down that path. Ross was not culpable– it was Bosie who ruined Wilde. Ross needed to make this known, not because he hated Bosie, but because it was the only version of the narrative that allowed him to remain entirely innocent of Wilde’s downfall. The battle that was to follow between Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross was not a fight between jealous romantic rivals. It was a fight over who history would blame for the tragic loss. Which one of them had killed the thing he loved?

Douglas may have won his battle–he defeated Ross in the legal arena–but Ross was the clear winner of the war. The term “faithful friend” is applied to him so consistently it is as if it were his official title. The 1997 film Wilde depicts Ross as Wilde’s good angel to Bosie’s bad angel. Wilde is depicted as having no interest in London’s rough underbelly until Bosie introduces him to Alfred Taylor. Wilde goes along reluctantly, to please Bosie. Real history was much more messy. There is no hint in the movie that Wilde had always been so attracted to the seedy side of life that he had snuck out on his own honeymoon to tour the red light district. The audience would never suspect that Ross himself (along with Bosie) was involved in a scandal only shortly before the trials which, had it not been covered up, could have ruined Wilde just as surely and completely.

Ross, who was not in the best of health, could not stand up to the stress of Bosie’s lawsuits and harassment. Most people believe that he was essentially hounded to death by Douglas. Douglas spent most of his middle years in an unsuccessful quest to reclaim the narrative through a series of lawsuits. His mental health eroded and he succeeded mostly in alienating friends and making new enemies.

Each man kills the thing he loves may not be a general truism. But it was certainly true of the life of Oscar Wilde.

Fame, Free Fall and the Size of the Frame

April is national poetry month. Last year I posted a poem each day. They were the least viewed posts I ever put up! So this time around I am going to do something a bit different and use various poems as a jumping off point for further reflection. Today’s poem is Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden.

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

—-

We have an amazing capacity to remain blissfully unaware of other people’s struggles and suffering. Hardships we have not personally experienced are unreal to us– invisible famines. We have stuff to do. We are focused and busy. In a famous experiment back in the 1970s, a team of researchers had seminary students plan a talk and then go to another building to deliver it. En route they passed a man in distress. Half of the students were told they would be speaking about seminary jobs, the other half were told they would be speaking about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The researchers wanted to know if concentrating on the parable of the Good Samaritan would make people more likely to offer aid. It didn’t. What did impact the likeliness the students would offer to help was how much time the students thought they had to get to the other building and give their presentation. When the students thought they had lots of time 63% of them offered to help, regardless of the topic of their talk. When they thought they were in a hurry only 10% offered to help.

Researchers have also found that the more people there are who witness an event, the less likely anyone is to offer help as everyone assumes someone else will do it. Scientists have tested this, but artists already sensed it. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold everyone in town knows that a member of their community is about to be murdered. No one wants it to happen, including the killers, and yet no one manages to stop it. The very fact that everyone knows seems to persuade each individual that it won’t actually happen.

And the old masters understood it. About suffering, they were never wrong.

A few days ago, I wrote about our oft thwarted desire to be seen and noticed. “We want to know and be known, to love and be loved, to lock eyes and be in the same moment together.”

149120_10150089505605948_5921817_nAnd yet our life and death battles take place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

We live in a culture that places a high value on fame, on known-ness. This value is in direct proportion to the anonymity most of us feel confronted with among so many neighbors who do not know us at all.

I propose that our desire for fame is not really a desire to be observed. It is, rather, a desire to be the central figure in the painting on the wall of the Musee des Beaux Arts and not the guy who happens to be steering his boat completely unaware that a moment of mythic significance is happening right beside him. We want to believe that we will be the central character in the novel and not the friend who appears in one scene on page 285.

We want to have the sense that he dramas of our lives matter. We do not want to accept what Shakespeare’s assessment in MacBeth that:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

People seek fame in order to feel that their lives matter.

“I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention… And even though you fool your soul your conscience will be mine.”-Adam Ant, “Stand and Deliver”

The quest for fame often leads to disillusion. In the immortal words of the philosopher David Bowie, “Fame puts you there where things are hollow.” (Yeah, actually, I have never understood what that song was talking about.)

Even though he may fool his soul, the rock star looks flash and grabs your attention for only a moment. Even in the brief moment that the star has attracted your gaze, you only see a shadow of the man behind the mask. The public goes on with its day to day tasks unconcerned with the life of the artist who creates the image.

The star trades some of his or her privacy for a species of known-ness that fails to live up to its promise. As the ploughman labors on, Icarus falls from the sky after flying too close to the sun.

Is there an answer then to this crisis of meaning?

In my first novel Angel, I wrote the following epigram: “Where does a mountain end? Mountains draw our focus to their snowcapped peaks and present us with the illusion that they are isolated, individual objects. We send postcards and take pictures and try to put a frame around them. But whatever border we create for the natural object we fine beautiful is our own projection. The mountain spills out in all directions. It dips into the valley, which rises to the next peak There is no place where you can stop and say, ‘The mountain ends here.'”

In other words, what appears in the center of the painting depends entirely on where you place the frame.

Around you at this moment are a few people who do take an interest in your victories and struggles. Your immediate family: your parents, spouse, children, lovers, intimate friends. It is a small world, to be sure, but a loving and compassionate one. It is here that you find the people who will stop plowing if you are plunging from the sky.

When you start to feel unnoticed and invisible, try a smaller frame.

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“Fiction Is Always Happening In The Background”: An AWRW Interview of Author Laura Lee

lauraleeauthor:

Thank you to April from A Well Read Woman for the interview.

Originally posted on A Well Read Woman:

lauraleeAuthor Laura Lee has written a dozen non-fiction books with such publishers as Harper Collins, Reader’s Digest, Running Press, Broadway Books, Lyons Press and Black Dog and Leventhal. Her book, Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation, has sold more than 85,000 copies. She has also written two collections of poetry, and a children’s book, (A Child’s Introduction to Ballet).

I recently read and reviewed, Identity Theft, by Author Laura Lee, which is a novel about a bored employee in a rock star’s office, who catfishes an enamored fan, in the guise of his boss, and sets off a chain of events he cannot control. I absolutely loved Identity Theft, and you can find my review, here!

Today I am interviewing, Author Laura Lee, and I encourage everyone to leave her a supportive comment! Please welcome her to A Well Read Woman Blog!

Hi Laura, thank you for agreeing…

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Self-Publishing and “Economically Privileged Authors”

I read an article on a blog called “it’s all one thing” (lowercase title in the original) with the title “I Challenge You To Stop Reading Economically Privileged Authors for One Year.”

I agree wholeheartedly with the basic premise of the article, that it is important to read outside of the echo chamber of one’s own social category and that upper middle class readers need to experience the voices of working class writers. When thinking about diversity it is important to include social class. We, far too often, ignore it completely.

But the expression “economically privileged authors” tripped me up a bit. Writing is hardly a lucrative profession.

Yes, I am lucky. I have resources that I would not have had I been born into poverty. I was raised in a home with “middle class values” and the confidence (and the pressure) that comes with that. “Take risks! Follow your dream! Your career should be a source of personal fulfillment!”  I am college-educated and have the vocabulary and accent of a professional. I can go into fairly upscale establishments and not look out of place. People give me the benefit of the doubt that I have credit cards to buy things and I am not there to rob the store. Thanks to my background I can hide my poverty, and as much as possible I do, because people make a lot of assumptions about those with no money. They are lazy, untrustworthy, incapable, unprofessional and selfish. I am none of those things, but as a working artist I am frequently poor. (My irregular income makes me at times very poor and at times almost among the middle class economically. So far, it has never made me rich.)

Writing the book “Broke is Beautiful” was therapeutic for me because it gave me the courage to admit this publicly, but one thing I hadn’t expected was the common criticism I would receive that I was a poverty poseur.  Coming from a background of privilege and being (currently) economically privileged are two different things. It’s not always as easy to know who the “poor” are as you think.

Will Shetterly,  the author of the “it’s all one thing” blog, was not talking about poverty though. He was talking about social class.

Reading stories from the point of view of working class characters, by writers from working class backgrounds, can help to solve one of the problems in our conversation about poverty and social class– the problem of “othering” and speaking about members of different social classes in distant abstractions.

There are two main ways that people talk about “the poor” one associated with the political right and the other with the political left. The first is to talk about poverty as though it were solely a matter of morality and personal choice. “Anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps if he has enough gumption. Therefore if you are poor it is because you are not working hard enough.” If you have experienced poverty for any length of time you know how much harder it is to accomplish things than when you are rich. You understand how one problem can set you back on multiple fronts. You know about the exhaustion of it and the personal strain. (People who are relatively comfortable often wonder why poor people go to payday lenders instead of borrowing money from friends or relatives. This assumes, first of all, that the friends and relatives have money to lend. It also entirely discounts the importance of social capital in a community with scant financial resources. A person who is already relying on friends and relatives– maybe a neighbor is watching her kids after school because she can’t afford day care or a friend is giving her rides to work– tries to preserve those relationships by not overly taxing them. It seems to the well-off person to be short-sighted, but in full context, it is actually a long-term view. Money problems may come and go, but your sister is going to be your sister for life, and she has a good memory.) The bootstrap theory is overly simplistic.

On the other hand, I sometimes cringe when I read defenses of the poor written by sympathetic college-educated, middle class people, who are aware of privilege but who have no personal experience of poverty. It is far too easy for empathy for the difficulties of the poor to morph into something like fatalism and pity. “There are all kinds of systemic obstacles. A black inner city kid can’t be expected to….” Birth is not destiny. A person from a marginalized group, with no money, has a much harder time of it. But it is as big a mistake to speak of those obstacles as defining, and to assume the person has no chance for positive change as it is to write the obstacles off as minor inconveniences.

Therefore we need more narratives written by and about competent, strong people who can paint vivid portraits of the drama of these obstacles.

“This is one of the rarely spoken truths of publishing: Most writers come from backgrounds of economic privilege,” Shetterly wrote.

The discussion about publishing and privilege tends to focus on traditional publishers. Self-publishing is supposed to be the great democratic force in publishing, allowing writers from groups that have been traditionally under-represented by the big houses to have their voices heard.

I wonder, though, if independent publishing can live up to this promise or if it will actually exacerbate the problem. I thought about this the other day when I was looking at some of the marketing options on Createspace. (I used Createspace for my current novel.)

These days publishing a book can be as easy as uploading a pdf  or Word file. Publishing is no longer the hard part. What is a challenge is bringing your book to the attention of readers and getting it to stand out among the glut of independently produced books. In other words, it is much easier to get a book into print than it is to get anyone to read it.

Reviewers have a lot on their plates and they are not interested in reading garbage. The few major reviewers who consider independent books look for ways to separate the wheat from the chaff. Kirkus, I discovered via Createspace, will review your book for a fee of $425, or in my terms, two car payments.

The idea behind this, if there is one besides a desire to make some money from the self-publishing boom, is that if someone is serious enough to invest in marketing the book, they were probably serious in its production as well.

I read quite a few blog posts written by authors trying to decide if the fee was worth it. It is probably “worth it” in that it grants a certain respectability to an independent title, especially if the review is positive. If you were to buy advertising in a publication with such status you would expect to pay this or more. It gives the indie writer a foot in the door. But if you do not have the economic means, the question is moot. There is no way a person living in poverty can come up with that much money– no matter what the benefits.

Of course a writer can, with a lot of effort, find a few bloggers he can personally persuade to champion his book. Book bloggers are absolutely inundated, and many try to reduce their load by limiting their selections to traditionally published books or those that are part of a blog tour.  Virtual blog tours are a great way to guarantee a few reviews without having to do the legwork yourself– but they are not cheap either. A typical price for a blog tour with a half dozen stops is $75-$100. A highly motivated author can substitute labor for money and can achieve similar results. It is just much, much harder.

Traditional publishers may favor books by authors from similar backgrounds to their own, but when they do publish a book they put in the money to make sure it is professionally edited, designed and marketed. In self-publishing all of those costs come out of the writer’s pocket.

The great democratic future of publishing runs the risk of becoming a playground for those who have some money to spare.

Michigan Author Monday: D.E. Johnson

D.E. JohnsonD.E. (Dan) Johnson’s literary debut, a historical mystery entitled The Detroit Electric Scheme, was published by St. Martin ‘s Minotaur in September 2010. The sequel, Motor City Shakedown, was published by Minotaur in September 2011. Dan is a history buff with a special interest in early twentieth century Detroit. As he writes on his web page, “Dan comes by his interest in automotive history honestly. His grandfather was the Vice President of Checker Motors, beginning work with Checker in 1924 and continuing until 1980. Fortunately, Dan doesn’t come by his interest in murder the same way.”

Tell me about “Detroit Shuffle.”

Detroit Shuffle is a mystery set in 1912 Detroit, in the middle of the era’s biggest (real life) political scandals: in the summer, all but one of the city council members were arrested for accepting bribes, and in the fall, women’s suffrage was on the ballot, and a group of conspirators tried to rig the election. Will Anderson, the protagonist, weaves through these situations while trying to discover who is attempting to kill his girlfriend, who is a militant suffragist. It’s a challenge, especially because no one else believes someone is trying to assassinate her.
Your books all have Detroit themes. What is it about Detroit that piques your imagination?

Detroit was once known as the “Paris of the West.” It was an amazing city of parks and boulevards, culture, and success. During my lifetime, the city has been in decline–until recently. I thought people should see what the city was like in its heyday and what it might be again.
How do you go about researching your novels?

I do a lot of research at the Detroit Public Library. They have the archives of all the major newspapers of the day, which are the best source of information about what people were thinking and talking about during this time. Most of the information on these scandals has never been put in a book, so that “on the ground” researching is necessary. I have a lot of early electric car information in my books, and I’ve gotten most of that from the Henry Ford Museum. They have a great research facility.
Which comes first– Does historical research inspire ideas for your plots or do you start with a plot and then research the period?

That’s a good question. I look at the historical events as the backdrop of the story. In my books I have told the stories of the rise and fall of the early electric car, Detroit’s first mob war, Wayne County’s massive asylum, Eloise Hospital, and early political scandals. Those are really the major subplot in each book. The real plot is the story of trying to catch a killer.
What do you like to read? Are mysteries your favorite genre as a reader?

I read a wide variety of novels: literary, historical, thrillers, but most of my favorite authors write mysteries. When I started writing, my goal was to marry E.L. Doctorow and Elmore Leonard, a Herculean task. I’m not really sure it’s possible for anyone to do that, but we have to have goals, right?
What is your process as a writer?

My process is to sit my butt down in my chair and write. I have a full-time job, so I don’t have the luxury of waiting for my muse to come calling. I get up very early in the morning and write, and I spend most of my weekends writing too. Of course, there is a lot of mental work being done in my downtime as well. I need to be able to visualize at least the beginning of a scene to be able to write it. Once I get going, my brain hijacks my consciousness and continues.
Do you have any literary pet peeves?

I wouldn’t say I have any particular pet peeves other than bad writing.
Do you have any new books in the pipeline?

I am just finishing my first book set in Chicago. It’s a mystery that takes place in 1874 in the middle of the country’s first major depression. The dual protagonists are a fifteen-year-old orphan and her uncle, who she didn’t know existed until her father died. He believes that her father was poisoned, which is contrary to the doctor’s opinion–that he died from simple heart failure. The uncle enlists the girl to help him investigate. Oh, and he’s a resurrectionist–one of those guys who digs up bodies to sell to medical schools. He became a resurrectionist to investigate deaths similar to his mother’s, who he is certain was murdered with the same poison that killed his brother.
I’m not certain at this point when this one will be published.

You can learn more about D.E. Johnson and his mysteries on his web page.