Humiliation: Contemplating Kevin Spacey and Oscar Wilde

“I want to acknowledge the not-infrequent willingness of a viewer, a neighbor, a master, a lover, a friend, a host, a commentator, to treat someone else as garbage. The willingness to desubjectify the other person. And the willingness, as if in a nightmare, to lock the door of civilization against this outcast, and to hear the ruined beast cry in the cold.”

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From time to time I like to wander through the library and pick up random books that catch my eye. On my last walk, a couple of weeks ago, I checked out Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Humiliation.”

It is a small book, and odd. It reads to me like culled diary entries on a particular subject– more the notes for a book than the book itself. I think Danielle Stevens got it right in Hyperallergic when she wrote “Koestenbaum occupies a space between blatant exhibitionism and self-criticism.”

The book is made up of short numbered observations about humiliation.

When I read it, it brought to mind Oscar Wilde, and in fact Wilde is mentioned at one point in the book. In response to a thought numbered 14 I wrote “Does humiliation represent the core of the fascination with Wilde? Humiliation is the violent stripping away of pride. Part of the success of De Profundis is that, fearing humiliation, we’re drawn to the view of one whose humiliation is complete. We imagine you must come out the other side changed. We all have moments of crisis, perhaps less dramatic, when our identities seem to be wrenched from us.”

This is Koestenbaum’s thought number 14:

When I see a public figure humiliated, I feel empathy. I imagine: that martyr could be me. Even if the public figure did something wrong, I empathize. Even if Michael Jackson slept with children. Even if Roman Polanski raped a thirteen-year-old. When I see the famous figure brought to trial, even if only trial-by-media, especially if the crime is sexual, I’m seized by horror and fascination, by pity, by terror: here again, as if at the Acropolis or the Roman Colosseum, I see the dramatic onset of a familiar scene, an unveiling, a goring, a staining, a stripping away of privilege.

Something happened between the time I first recorded my thoughts on this little book, and when I went back to it. The passage stopped being about Wilde and became about Kevin Spacey. (Koestenbaum, we can assume, is feeling empathy for him today.)

Spacey is an actor I’ve always admired, although he is not a special favorite of mine. I became aware of allegations of misconduct against him by seeing my Twitter feed fill with posts blasting his apology for allegedly making a sexual overture to a 14-year-old boy 30 years ago.  Spacey confuses the real issue– that the boy was 14 and he was 26– with the non-issue (to most people in our age anyway) that he is attracted to his own sex. I have a theory that perhaps Spacey has worried for a long time that the public would discover the fact that he was gay, and that he’d rehearsed in his mind what he would say when he was eventually outed. When that moment came he failed to take the nuances of the moment into account in his statement. That, or it could just be cynical deflection, as pretty much everyone views it. I’m assuming you’ve heard the story by now. If not Inc had a good article on what was wrong with the apology.  What was wrong with the underlying behavior, if true, needs no explanation. Type “Kevin Spacey” into your favorite search engine (it’s DuckDuckGo right?) and you will be brought quickly up to speed if you’ve somehow missed it.

I have had a hard time getting this story out of my head, and I could not figure out why. I think it is because of the uncomfortable resonances with Oscar Wilde’s downfall. If you look at Spacey’s own Twitter feed as of this writing, there is something haunting about it. The stream is full of happy moments, successes, celebrations and plans for all sorts of upcoming projects. It ends with his statement about the allegations against him.  Then there is no more. Knowing that after this statement House of Cards was canceled, Spacey’s Emmy was revoked, his acting master class was canceled, it reads like the end of a life and a tumble into the void. As Matthew Arnold wrote:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.

The cancellations remind me of how performances of Wilde’s plays were dropped, his name taken off of programs. In one case an artist even offered to paint Wilde out of a painting in a gallery, such was the desire to erase the memory him.

What makes these echoes particularly uncomfortable is that an honest observer has to admit that the there is some overlap in the accusations against them. Oscar Wilde was not advocating “gay liberation.” He was an advocate of Urianian culture, which held as an ideal the sexual mentorship of teenage boys by older men. The famous “Love that Dares Not Speak Its Name” speech that was a high point in the movie Wilde (and which got applause at his first criminal trial in real life) spoke about the beautiful love of “an older for a younger man.”

In Oscar’s Ghost I wrote, “To a Uranian poet, a perfect muse was a teenager maybe fourteen or sixteen years old. The boys were to some extent viewed as objects of longing because they were unobtainable, but it is clear that these ideals shaped the fantasies and views of the men who wrote raptures about their beauty…There is evidence that Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas), Robbie (Ross) and Oscar all had sexual encounters with teenagers. (As, no doubt, did Reggie Turner if his nickname “the boy snatcher of Clements Inn” is anything to go by.)”

Lord Alfred Douglas, in his middle years, came to believe that he had been primed at school and finally seduced by Wilde into a dangerous culture. He blamed his education as much as Wilde, but he came to see “the cult of Wilde” as particularly dangerous for advocating this culture. He came to view it as his mission to warn the world against its dangers and to protect other young men from being seduced into it. At the time his nemesis, Robert Ross, was still an advocate of Greek sexual mentorship. Both he and his good friend Christopher Millard were romantically involved with young men they had met when they were still teens. Millard had once lost a teaching position apparently for something involving a student. Douglas wrote a book that was never published called The Wilde Myth in which he made his case against “the cult.”

The book concludes “The Wilde myth has devastated my life from every point of view. It devastated my life when I was a victim to its illusions, and it has devastated my life ever since I escaped from those illusions.”

Imagine him sitting down on Oprah’s couch and telling that story. The audience would be sympathetic, right? They might even chalk up his personality issues and bad behavior to trauma from the abuse. Is that the right way to look at the situation?

I don’t think so. You can’t judge historical figures by modern cultural standards and simply interview a historical figure on Oprah’s couch.  They have to be understood in their own context.  Here is how I explained the context in Oscar’s Ghost:

There was, of course, no age of consent for sex between males– it was strictly illegal. To get an idea of what age the larger society deemed a consenting adult we can look to the same law that had only recently criminalized ‘gross indecency between male persons.’ It also raised the age of consent for girls from 12 to 16. (In France the age of consent was still 13.)

Frank Harris, the American journalist and a good friend of Wilde’s, objected to the new law. He felt that it was ridiculous because it outlawed sexual activities with a girl under the age of 13 “even with her own consent” and girls under sixteen even if they “tempted.”…

During Wilde’s criminal trials, even though most of his partners were in their teens, their ages were never much of an issue for the court. It was only their gender and social class that provoked outrage. A medical professional who examined Wilde in prison wrote in his report that the prisoner “practised the most disgusting and odious of criminal offences with others of his own sex and that too not with one or two individuals of a better station in life, but apparently with the most casual acquaintances of comparatively low social position.”

Just as we can’t judge Wilde and his friends by modern standards, we can’t judge Spacey by the views of the past. Just in case there was any doubt, I’m taking a bold stand here and stating for the record that I am anti-child molestation.

I think it does give pause, though, when you realize that there is an actual Wilde shrine in New York as Kevin Spacey heads off for the obligatory “treatment” as a necessary first step to try to shed his new-found pariah status and gain re-entry into society.

For those of us who admire Oscar Wilde, a case like Kevin Spacey’s is an uncomfortable reminder of an aspect of his story that we don’t much like to think about. As he is increasingly beatified as the first gay martyr it’s important to remember that he was not a “gay man” in the modern sense. There are some important differences and some very deep shades of grey. If we fail to be honest about that we risk making the the same mistake that Kevin Spacey’s apology did– conflating modern gay culture with (Uranian) pedophila. (Technically speaking, I think the correct term would be hebephilia or ephebophila, an erotic attraction to adolescents rather than prepubescents.)

It is possible, however, to keep both of these ideas in your head: That Oscar Wilde was punished for something we no longer view as a crime– loving males– and this is a tragedy and bothers us as an injustice. But there are other aspects of his life that we would find troubling if they happened today. Then again, if he lived today, it is impossible to know if those aspects would have existed for he would have been socialized differently–part of our culture, not his.

One of my favorite passages from De Profundis, the work that set me off on this whole Wilde journey, was this:

Of course there are many things of which I was convicted that I had not done, but then there are many things of which I was convicted that I had done, and a still greater number of things in my life for which I was never indicted at all. And as the gods are strange, and punish us for what is good and humane in us as much as for what is evil and perverse, I must accept the fact that one is punished for the good as well as for the evil that one does. I have no doubt that it is quite right one should be. It helps one, or should help one, to realise both, and not to be too conceited about either. And if I then am not ashamed of my punishment, as I hope not to be, I shall be able to think, and walk, and live with freedom.

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