The Complexity of Creatives: The Case of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

WildeFor some time now I have been reading everything I can about Lord Alfred Douglas and by extension Oscar Wilde. (This is, of course, backwards to the order in which most people approach these two.) This is what, in my insular little word, constitutes fun.

I was reading yesterday a book called Oscar Wilde as a Character in Victorian Fiction by Angela Kingston. I quote here from the introduction:

In the space of twenty-three years– from his first foray into public life to his death in 1900- no less than thirty-seven discernible portraits of Wilde appeared in novels and short stories by his peers… His refusal to take a definite shape clearly left many contemporary authors unable to resist the temptation of molding him themselves and offering their satisfying ‘complete’ Oscar Wildes to a reading public consumed with curiosity about the elusive man behind the self-fashioner.

This is, of course, why so many contemporary writers take him on as a biographical subject. It is a wonderful challenge to try to find the topic sentence of him. Each depiction of Wilde whether in fiction or biography is the product of someone’s fascination with some aspect of the man and most likely with its tension with other aspects of him. Every biography is a relationship between the subject and another writer’s imagination. It is because it is so difficult to sum him up that writers keep coming at it from different angles.

Alfred Douglas was every bit as contradictory, perhaps even more so. This is what has fascinated me about him since I first encountered him by reading his letters to Shaw. He is a monarchist, a traditionalist, fond of rigid rules and unchanging structure and yet rebellious, and contemptuous of public opinion. He is as polite and charming as he is volatile and argumentative. Romantically he liked the traditionally “feminine” role of being pursued, courted and nurtured. Yet he also liked the traditionally “masculine” role and wanted to be strong and dominant. (In his time with Wilde he managed to exercise both sides by being nurtured and courted by Wilde while being dominant with rent boys.) He will lift his eyes and plead for sympathy like a hurt puppy and then lash out like a junk yard dog. In his letters with Shaw he manages to be an eternal child and also a cantankerous old man, nostalgic for old-fashioned ways.

To say that these contradictory forces resided uncomfortably in him (or in Wilde) would be wrong. He managed to live with all of these personality aspects just fine, thank you very much. It was other people who found the apparent contradictions difficult to live with. It is hard for one person to love equally the rebel and the conformist, the polite and the rude, the free spirit and the rigid, the eternal child and the old fuddy duddy, the masculine and the feminine. Perhaps it took someone as complex and multi-faceted as Wilde to appreciate (or at least put up with) all of those contradictions.

When writers say of either man “He was not arrogant, he was generous and kind,” they are telling a kind of truth and also  kind of lie. They were both arrogant, selfish, generous and kind.

After reading the introduction to the Kingston book, I remembered the book Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which I read probably 15 years ago or so. It stuck in my memory not only because it is one of the few books in which the author’s name is twice as long as the title. Csikszen… The author had done an extensive study of the personalities of creative people and he concluded that the one trait that made them different from average people (I hesitate to use the term “non-creative,” as everyone has the ability to imagine and create something) is their “complexity.”

By this I mean that hey show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes– instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude.’ Like the color white that includes all of the hues of the spectrum, they tend to bring together the entire range of human possibilities within themselves…creative persons definitely know both extremes and experience both with equal intensity and without inner conflict.

He goes on to highlight a few areas in particular in which artists and other professional creatives tend to differ from the general population.

1. They seem to have a strong does of eros and at the same time a certain spartan celibacy is also part of their makeup.

Douglas especially personified this going from a wildly promiscuous youth to complete celibacy (and denunciation of sexuality) in his later years.

2. They tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time.

3. They are both playful and disciplined, responsible and irresponsible.

Wilde was the perfect example of this. He was a prolific, hard working writer, and he also had a huge capacity for play. Although Douglas was better known for play than work, he chose for his art form the sonnet, which is not written without focus and labor. He took this work very seriously. As an audience we focus much less on this side of him simply because we moderns don’t care all that much for sonnets and get bored when he starts to pontificate on them. What fascinates me about Douglas as an artist is how he managed to channel his volatile energy and emotion into the “deliberate cage” of the sonnet. (The words in quotes are from his Sonnet on the Sonnet.)

4. They alternate between imagination and fantasy and a rooted sense of reality.

5. They harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion.

Thus you have Oscar Wilde begging Douglas to come to him when he has gone away to write, and then cursing him for taking his focus away from his work. This is a very typical writerly behavior.

6. They are remarkably humble and proud at the same time.

“Another way of expressing this duality,” Csiks… sigh, writes, “is t see it as a contrast between ambition and selflessness, or competition and cooperation.”  Thus both Wilde and Douglas came across to some observers as unforgivably arrogant and to others as generous and kind. Douglas, it must be said, had a bit more of the arrogance than the humility. (He was “…abnormally, damnably, touchingly conceited…” as the artist Max Beerbohm put it.)

7. They have a tendency toward androgyny.

That is to say, regardless of their sexuality, they are able (and desire to be) both dominant and submissive, nurtured and nurturer, object and objectifier, artist and artist’s muse. Sarah Parker wrote an interesting chapter on Alfred Douglas and his wife the poet Olive Cunstance in her book The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity. Cunstance was attracted to men with feminine qualities and seduced Douglas by sending him a picture of herself dressed as a boy. Because their initial courtship was carried out by post, he was able to imagine this figure and fall in love with the personality in the letters. He had never been courted and wooed by a woman, and was thrilled to discover he had a capacity to love a woman. In her book, Parker explores how the gender roles in the muse/artist relationship were originally reversed with Douglas serving as the object– the male muse and Cunstance as the artist, and that the poles flipped when they married and Douglas placed his wife in the role of muse. This, she argues, had a detrimental effect on Cunstance’s ability to produce work and on their marriage.

8. Creative people are both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic.

“Being only traditional leaves the domain unchanged,” wrote the author of Creativity, “constantly taking chances without regard to what has been valued in the past rarely leads to novelty that is accepted as improvement.”

9. Creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.

This applies to Wilde, but not really to Douglas who was absolutely certain he was a poetic genius and loved to dish out criticism of other’s work but could not accept any criticism of his own.

10. Finally, the openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.

“…research shows that artists and writers do have unusually high rates of psycopathology and addictions…Divergent thinking is often perceived as deviant by the majority, and so the creative person may feel very isolated and misunderstood. These occupational hazards do come with the territory, so to speak, and it is difficult to see how a person could be creative and at the same time insensitive to them.”

Thus, Csiksentmihalyi had found, creative people seek one another out. They seem to need to be in the company of others who share the same struggles and who value the same “divergent” things.

Wilde made something of a religion of something that is a default psychological setting for artists– that the purpose of life is to experience everything and express what you observe through art. There are always people who will be wired this way, and they generally find themselves in conflict with social structures built around ideals of commerce or social status. Artists must be “willing to subordinate their own personal comfort and advancement to the success of whatever project they are working on.” This puts them out of step. Artists require reassurance on a fairly regular basis that their self-imposed poverty and lack of security have some greater meaning. Wilde was able to provide this to young poets in spades, and that is why they surrounded him.

The muse/muse relationship that is formed when two artists fall in love is fascinating and wondrous. 















  1. Greetings and a bow to you, Laura Lee
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and creative ideas about these remarkable characters. Your writing is thoughtful, yet warm (as your dad might have said). Bless you and your dad for your wisdom and humanity.

    But I have a very personal reason for wanting to honour you. Your post summing up the work of M Csikszentmihalyi and applying his ideas to understanding Wilde’s life touched me in a very personal way. You gave me insights into my own troubled life and it’s obtuse trajectory. I feel healed and more willing to accept what I had previously felt was a shameful failure to adapt to the world. Perhaps what I had previously viewed as maldjustment to this world was simply a manifestation of a creative nature. It almost sounds trite when put in words…..but what I experience while reading your piece was a life-affirming epiphany. It was like a great healer had come into my world to lighten my spirit and give me the grace to rise above a haunting negativity. You have performed a great act of charity by stitching an old wound.
    Bless you, Laura.


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