Context

Biography and the Art of Interpretation

Lives don’t tell stories. People tell stories. Lives are made up of events, some connected, some random. Some possibilities are explored, some are averted. It is only in retrospect that a person can go back and make a story out of those events. This necessarily involves interpretation.

I was reading Matthew Sturgis’ “Oscar: A Life” today and I came across an interesting example. A single observation in a letter written by Robert Ross in Sturgis’s book is presented with an almost opposite meaning as it is in my own. The quote is from the period shortly after Wilde and Douglas were forced to give up living together in Naples after Wilde’s release from prison. Here is how it appears in Sturgis:

But the all-consuming intimacy of the past was not recovered. And without the distorting lens of love, Bosie’s selfishness became all too apparent. As Ross reported to Smithers, after a visit to Paris, Douglas ‘is less interested in other people than ever before, especially Oscar, so I really think that alliance will die a natural death’.

The fact that Douglas is said to be less interested in other people, especially Oscar, here is evidence of Douglas’s selfishness. I saw it, instead, as evidence that Douglas became depressed after being forced to separate from Oscar Wilde. After having weathered so much to be together, both suffered from depression when that period of their relationship came to an end. (Oscar Wilde told a friend he considered suicide at that time.) Clinical depression manifests in a lack of interest in things you once enjoyed. Depressed people often withdraw from social interaction. For a number of reasons, which I spell out in the book, I suspect that Lord Alfred Douglas suffered from mental illness and so “losing interest in other people” immediately appeared to me as a symptom of depression. You can follow my reasoning in the book and decide for yourself.

The reason I wanted to write about this quote is that I think it serves as an excellent example of the way a bit of biographical material is put into context, and the many layers of interpretation that go into understanding one line. There are many things a historian must decide. Is Robert Ross’s report accurate? Had Douglas indeed “lost interest in other people, especially Oscar”? Does the fact that the witness was Ross color how Douglas might have behaved? Could he have been specifically uninterested in talking to Robbie about other people (Oscar in particular)? (I can think of a number of reasons why this might be the case.)

Of course a biographer doesn’t interpret one letter in isolation. He or she decides the answer to those questions based on other material uncovered. Sturgis has good reason to read the line as evidence of selfishness. Wilde often describes Douglas in that light in letters to Robert Ross. There is also the small matter of the story Wilde tells in De Profundis.

What are we to make of these sources? How historically accurate was De Profundis? How did the unique context of its creation effect what ended up on the page and how Wilde interpreted the events of his life at that moment?  Was his description of Douglas in his letters to Ross consistent with how he spoke about him in the period to others? Was there something about his relationship with Ross that might have colored how he spoke about Douglas to him specifically? I came to certain conclusions about this, but others will form different opinions.

Generally speaking, the only people who read about Lord Alfred Douglas do so because they have an interest in Oscar Wilde. This creates a certain framing. You can assume that anyone with an interest in Wilde would have read De Profundis before reading any of Douglas’s accounts of their relationship. De Profundis creates a powerful first impression. There have been a number of studies that show that once we form an idea about someone, it is very hard to change, even with new information.

Having read De Profundis, and then reading Douglas’s own accounts, you see the traits that Wilde described. “There’s that selfishness he was talking about.” “There’s that moodiness.”

Of course those traits were there. There is no denying that Douglas had a strong sense of entitlement. He was a snob and was often selfish. The De Profundis account may not have been totally accurate or fair, but neither was it entirely inaccurate or unfair. Would the traits that Wilde criticized in Douglas jump out as much as they do if we weren’t already primed to focus on them and see them as his defining traits?  It’s hard to know, but it is a bias that I think it is worth trying to correct for.

In the end, I can’t say with certainty whether Douglas “lost interest in people” at that moment because he was too full of himself to be bothered with them, or because he had just been forced to separate from his lover, had an argument with him over it, and was depressed. The latter explanation feels more right to me. Read it as you will.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Many Shades Between Vilification and Admiration

Today’s Times (London) features an article by director Dominic Dromgoole on his production of The Importance of Being Earnest being staged at the Vaudeville Theater.

Wilde has also shown us something beyond the chill of certainties. As he knew, people come to the theatre to escape certainty; it is the place for adventure and questioning and imagination. It has been a pleasure to watch our audiences relishing Wilde’s ability to balance several different points of view in one paradoxical sentence. Not for him the hammer-headed tweet, with its partial point of view. Theatre, as he knew, is in a constant state of searching for more complex moral judgments; it uses interrogation and empathy to reveal the multifaceted nature of human choice and human transaction. In an age when left and right search for new ways to express monochrome absolutes, one can feel the audience relishing a few hours’ holiday in a world of maturity and nuance.

Wilde knew that charity is more likely to be found among sinners than among the pious; and that kindness is more likely to be found in the free of mind than in the closed. He had lived with wolves and had lived out his own wolfishness. Each of his puritans discovers that those they thought of as all bad have reserves of the greatest kindness, and those they idolised as perfect are capable of meanness and clumsiness.

That sense of complexity and nuance is something that has always drawn me to Wilde. He uses paradox to show that opposites are not opposites, he resists polarization and easy judgment.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Matthew Sturgis’ review of Oscar’s Ghost in the latest edition of The Wildean. I mentioned the review earlier, but now that the issue has been out for a while, I think it is safe to quote it a bit more.

The joint review of Oscar’s Ghost and Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years begins: “These two books are useful– and enjoyable–additions to the Wildean canon…They are both full of good things, novel insights and interesting asides…”

So you’ve got to like that.

“The intricacies and repetitions of the various court cases initiated by Ross, Douglas, Crosland and others can be fascinating, tedious, dispiriting and incomprehensible– almost all at the same time… There is much impressive research here and [Lee] lays it out with a light, sometimes humorous touch…Lee brings a certain freshness to her project.”

It is a detailed review of both books, thorough and knowledgeable, as one would expect of The Wildean. In all it is a thoughtful and balanced review.

NonameThere is one word of it, however, that has been playing on my mind. The word is “admiration.”

“Both Lee and Frankel are broadly sympathetic to Bosie, emphasising his eduring love and loyalty to Wilde at the time of his incarceration–and afterwards. It is a useful corrective,” Sturgis writes before discussing some of the questions of whether or not Wilde and Douglas only split because they were forced to by circumstances, or whether their romance had run its course.

My view is that they intended to have a future together but found it too difficult to live together given all of the external pressure. I also suspect they had a row over this just before they stopped living together in Naples, with Douglas wanting to keep fighting the world and Wilde not wanting to.

I also suspect, incidentally, that part of Douglas’s anger when Wilde insisted that he should set aside some of his inheritance to support Wilde post-Naples (see my previous post on the film The Happy Prince) derived from the fact that it was Wilde, not Douglas, who had given up on their living together.  Had they still been living together, they would have pooled their resources, and Douglas’s inheritance would have benefited them both. If Wilde did break up with him, then came back insisting that he should be set up financially for life, Douglas’s anger becomes quite a bit more comprehensible.

But given that their relationship was never exclusive, and that they continued to spend time together and to fall back into old habits, I’m not sure it is actually all that clear whether they broke up or not.  Beyond that, whether the relationship formally ended is a separate question from whether their feelings for each other ended. In essence, as with most things Wilde related, I don’t think it is a simple yes or no question.

And now we come to the point in the review where the word “admiration” rears its head: “An authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas, moreover, has to be sustained in the face of much terrible behaviour…”

This comes in a paragraph of the review that does a good job describing the complexities of the battle between Ross and Douglas over Wilde’s legacy.  “Ross for– for all the personal and professional admiration that he enjoyed– could be a touchy and difficult character… not for nothing did Max Beerbohm dub him the ‘botherationist.’ But Douglas was far touchier and far more difficult.”

It is not entirely clear that “authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas” is supposed to refer to my book, but it seems as though it is. So knowing my feelings better than anyone else, I will say for the record that “admiration” is not what I feel about Lord Alfred Douglas. There is a wide swath between “broadly sympathetic” and “admiration.”

Douglas has always been a polarizing character– it is part of his fascination. The polarization tends to create a “with him or against him” mindset where anything short of condemnation can be seen as approval or even admiration.

Here is my point of view on Douglas. I think that he has been too much blamed for some things and not enough blamed for others. I do not believe he deserves to be condemned as much as he has been for wanting to be loved by Oscar Wilde while having a difficult personality. (Wilde was often drawn to people with challenging personalities, judging by many of the other friends in his circle, including Ross.)

On the other hand, the way Douglas treated his good friend Freddie Manners-Sutton was appalling. (After Sutton refused to invest in Douglas’s literary journal The Academy, he dragged him into court to expose his personal secrets, bad behavior that it seems he had, himself, encouraged.) He had no excuse for it, and few have commented much on that aspect of it, focusing instead on what the libel trial revealed about Douglas’s relationship with Wilde. As I wrote in the book, I suspect that some of Douglas’s emotional and behavioral extremes were influenced by what we would today term mental illness, (Manners-Sutton’s correspondence with Olive Douglas suggests that even as he was being abused by Douglas, his former friend viewed him as not being entirely in control of himself and maintained a certain pained sympathy) but that is an explanation, not an excuse.

Facebook status: “it’s complicated.”

The more I dug into the characters of Douglas and Ross, the more I discovered contradictions and episodes that didn’t fit well with the polar views of these characters: Douglas as chaos, Ross as stability. Ross, like Douglas, was litigious. He seems to have been drawn to difficult people and conflict. Ross was probably as promiscuous as Douglas. Douglas, not only Ross, tried to find Wilde work after he got out of prison. Some of Ross’s efforts to help Wilde were as ill-conceived as some of Douglas’s, and so on.

But, indeed, Douglas was more extreme in his feud with Ross. He was more extreme in everything. He was a man who was hardwired with poor emotional control (call it bipolar disorder or something else) who was also pushed by extreme circumstances and the combination was combustible.

My view of Douglas is best summed up in the epilogue of Oscar’s Ghost: “Douglas was a class snob, capable of great selfishness, petulant self-pity and outbursts of irrational rage, but… [he] was a more complex, multifaceted individual than he is often given credit for.”

I do find Douglas (and Ross) fascinating, but I did not intend for this to read as admiration.

In any case, I am grateful for the thorough and thoughtful review in The Wildean, and if you have any interest in Wilde, I recommend subscribing.

 

 

 

Smashing Pluralistic Ignorance

I log onto this blog through a page that displays my stats. There are certain old posts of mine that reliably get hits every day. Others randomly pop up from time to time. Yesterday a post of mine from two years ago called “Pluralistic Ignorance” suddenly got some hits.

I think I know why. Pluralistic ignorance is when a large portion of a community holds a particular view, but the individuals do not realize it because no one (or few) have spoken up about it. In my original post I used this example:

 You may recall that a few years ago, while I was promoting my novel Angel, I came upon a study that showed that Christian ministers, as a group, believed they were more accepting of gay rights than their congregants. Christian church members, on the other hand, thought that they were more accepting of LGBT rights than their pastors. That is to say, each group wanted to come out as pro-gay rights, but was afraid the other party was not ready to make a change. The ministers were afraid they would alienate their congregations, the congregants were afraid of being out of step with the minister.

Then something happens that causes the dam to break. Someone who in a position to influence tells a story, or some world even happens, that causes people to start talking. “You were bothered by the Confederate flag over the capitol all along? So was I. I thought it was just me.”

We’re in one of those moments with #MeToo. The power of the hashtag was that it blew our pluralistic ignorance all to smash. “You had this happen but didn’t speak up? Me too.”

Silence is at the center of this. The driving force is the acknowledgement that a cultural code of silence has prevailed that has obscured something that we always knew was happening, and always knew was wrong. There were as many reasons for the silence as there were victims from fear of losing a job, to shame, to the expectation that they would not be believed, to the fear that speaking up would lead to more restrictions– not of the perpetrators– but of the woman in the name of safety. It is not that we did not know this was happening. We didn’t realize that everyone else knew and couldn’t find a way to talk about it.

The other day, as John Oliver’s confrontation of Dustin Hoffman was trending, (I’ll come back to this) I got to thinking about the 1982 film Tootsie.

It reminded me of some of the scenes from that film. The Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels character deals with casting that is based on narrow standards of physical beauty, a touchy and dismissive boss who calls her “Tootsie” (hence the title) an amorous co-worker who uses an on screen kiss as an excuse to shove his tongue down her throat and who won’t take no for an answer.

What is interesting about this is that all of the writers on this film, as well as the director, were men. Men had their blind spots, but when they tried to imagine themselves navigating a woman’s world, it becomes clear that they knew that this stuff happened, and knew that it was a problem.

Men as well as women are immersed in our culture. Billy Bush laughed with Donald Trump, not because he agreed with him, but because he didn’t know how not to.  Trump was the powerful man in the room, and you got on hi good side by joking like he did.  I think we’re starting to see the pluralistic ignorance starting to break among men. “Wow, I felt really uncomfortable when he made that joke about women. You too? I thought it was just me.”

That is thanks to #MeToo.

MeToo was aways about cultural change. It is about the culture of silence. But we are an individualistic culture, and our method of story telling is to focus on individuals rather than communities. Instead of looking at work places and talking about our intersecting relations and how we influence each other, we’re more inclined to identify individual bad actors and make examples of them.

Yet while the different cases are individual and have their own nuances, they are also part of the larger narrative. When we discuss each fallen star’s apology, we are judging it in the context of the larger movement. Is the accused acknowledging the legitimacy of, not only the specific complaint, but #MeToo as a whole? Do they agree that women have not had their voices heard, and that there are imbalances in power that need to be addressed? The apology becomes central, and we spend a lot of time critiquing apologies. “Do you believe the women?” is not just a question about the particular incident, but about all women. Often people invoke it without having actually read the particulars. It is asking what side are you on.

That is why we cheer John Oliver when he shakes his head at Dustin Hoffman asking why his accuser did not speak up forty years.  Indeed, Oliver is right. The whole point is that victims of sexual harassment are too intimidated to speak up. The point is to break the silence. We know why the accuser did not speak up. But to Hoffman, it is specific, and not an archetype.

Hoffman allegedly made vulgar jokes to a 17-year-old intern and asked her go give him foot massages.  From her account, it seems as though she mentioned her discomfort and that at least some people on the set were aware of it.  Even so, it seems as though most of the people on the set interpreted Hoffman’s behavior as normal joking around.  Or if they did not, they believed the others on the set did, and therefore said nothing. The director, Volker Schlondorff, wrote an article defending Hoffman.

It’s plain silly. Just watch Christian Blackwood’s wonderful documentary PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS on the making of DOAS to check what a kidder Dustin was on the set, at all time, with everybody. Standard Monday morning question was indeed. “Did you have good sex over the weekend?” A joke, a running gag, everybody laughed at.

Foot massage? Yes indeed, he was 16 hours standing on the set (as me he never sat down), so he was tired and besides there is a line in the play about it: “These arch supports are killing me.” Dustin Hoffman, ever method acting, made it his own. Everybody gave him a foot massage now and then, on the set, amidst the chaos, nothing ambiguous about it.

As to the joke who was going to get Warren Beatty, only a teenager in her unlimited fantasy could take it seriously. Slapping her butt on the way to the car, with driver, stage manager and PAs around, may have happened, but again in a funny way, nothing lecherous about it. He was a clown, it was part of the way we portrayed Willy Loman as well — but he never played the power play. He was teasing the young, nervous interns, mostly to make them feel included on the set, treating them as equals to all the senior technicians. She may have got it wrong, confiding it to her diary then…

This is where the individual vs. community nature of the problem comes into focus. I believe that Hoffman made this intern uncomfortable. I don’t believe she “got it wrong” in her diary.

Yet I am also prepared to believe that Hoffman did not intend to make the intern uncomfortable. He was not trying to wield power over her but to be playful with her. Hewas part of a culture that said slapping a girl on the butt was a way to be funny “nothing lecherous about it.” He was part of a culture that assumed a woman would not “take it seriously.” Others in his sphere signaled to him that making a joke about having sex over the weekend was within bounds. He must have viewed it as his apologist Schlondorff did, “He was teasing the young, nervous interns, mostly to make them feel included on the set…”

Everybody laughed. The fact that “everybody laughed” could mean that, indeed, no one viewed it as a problem. On the other hand, they could have been like Billy Bush on the bus, laughing to build rapport with the stars, even though they were uncomfortable inside. But here’s the thing, he wouldn’t know the difference.

So when John Oliver shakes his head and says “Oh, Dustin” when he asks why his accuser didn’t say anything for 40 years, he is right. We understand what that would have been asking of her.

But Hoffman is also naturally wondering why he didn’t know about this before. If a man is immersed in an environment in which everyone around him is part of a culture of pluralistic ignorance, where everyone is treating this behavior as normal, even fun when they think it is not, how is he supposed to learn and grow and change? Confrontation is not aggression, it is information. The silence didn’t do Hoffman any favors either. It would have been better for everyone had his accuser felt empowered in the moment to say, “I don’t appreciate that.”

Is it fair to assume the worst about the intentions of the accused– not just that the accuser felt degraded but that he meant to degrade her? Or can we give him the benefit of the doubt, that even though she did feel that way, it was not his intent. Is it fair to assume that he would not have changed his behavior if they had been in a world where the intern felt more empowered to voice her discomfort more firmly, and if her rebuke been backed up by others?

As much as I cringe at Schlondorff’s comment that “She had a self-assured playful way herself,” I do believe his conclusion, “If [Hoffman] knew that she would be upset when he was teasing her, he wouldn’t have done it.” At least, I believe it is worth assuming that unless enough new information comes out to change the calculus.

Hoffman, in his apology, wrote  “I have the utmost respect for women and feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation. I am sorry. It is not reflective of who I am.”

John Oliver took umbrage with the phrase “It is not reflective of who I am.” He wanted him to say “It is not reflective of who I am now.”  He wanted him to own it more. He wanted him to go beyond saying “I feel bad about my actions” and accept the identity of “harasser.” I don’t know if that is “who he is” or not. I don’t know him. I assume John Oliver doesn’t either.  It could be that this is an isolated incident, or it could be the tip of the iceberg. (An article in Vanity Fair about the making of Kramer vs. Kramer makes him sound… difficult.) In either case, we should broaden our focus to the entire culture that kept the intern from speaking up for so long.

 

 

 

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.

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) ephebophila (an erotic attraction to adolescents).

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.

“Saw His Opportunity”

[Robbie Ross is] one of my greatest friends and one of the best fellows that ever lived.”- Lord Alfred Douglas, letter to his brother Percy, 1893.

31742378Years after Oscar Wilde died, two of his closes friends, Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross, found themselves locked in a bitter feud.

The conflict is the subject of my forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost. (Due out in August in the UK and November in the U.S., I believe.)

Over the years I was researching the book I read an exceptional amount of material written by people defending either Robert Ross or Lord Alfred Douglas from the other’s claims. (Douglas did more talking than Ross did.)

I have a pet peeve when it comes to the way people often talk about the conflict. I can sum it up in three words: “he saw his chance.” This expression is used by partisans of both men. From Douglas’s admirers (in truth he only really has “admirers” with reservations), it is Ross who always wanted to marginalize Douglas and at various points in the story “he saw his chance” to do so.  For example, Robert Ross acted as an intermediary while Wilde was in prison because Douglas was living in exile in France and had no direct communication. It is common for Douglas defenders to say that when Wilde began expressing negative sentiments about Douglas while he was in prison that Ross “saw his chance” to separate them.  (He did try to carry out Wilde’s instructions to get back his love letters to Douglas, but then again, he also tried to plead Douglas’s case to Wilde, which earned him a stern rebuke in a letter.)

A recent example that I came across from the other side talked about Douglas filing a libel suit against the author Arthur Ransome over his biography of Oscar Wilde, in which he was assisted by Robert Ross. The libel suit is central to the out and out war that was to erupt between Ross and Douglas. It was much more a dispute between them than against Ransome. He had the misfortune of being stuck in the middle. In describing these events one author explained that it was Douglas who had been jealous for years over Ross’s position as literary executor to Wilde and he saw his chance to get revenge. (In fact, Douglas had a whole host of motivations for filing his libel suit, some more laudable than others and Ross’s own actions certainly played a part in how his former friend reacted in that situation.)

In both cases, an image is painted of two men who were always at odds and who lay in wait for an opportunity to do harm to the other.  The only difference is where one attributes the malice.

I’ve often made the point here that we, in the west, approach history differently than people do in the east.  We learn to take a historical event and then work backwards, looking for the events that led up to it and plotting them as a straight line from one point to another. Quoting Richard Nisbett’s Geography of Thought:

Japanese teachers begin with setting the context of a given set of events in some detail. They then proceed through the important events in chronological order, linking each event to its successor. Teachers encourage their students to imagine the mental and emotional states of historical figures… Students are regarded as having good ability to think historically when they show empathy with the historical figures, including those who were Japan’s enemies. “How” questions are asked frequently— about twice as often as in American classrooms. American teachers spend less time setting the context than Japanese teachers do. They begin with the outcome, rather than with the initial event or catalyst. The chronological order of events is destroyed in presentation. Instead, the presentation is dictated by discussion of the causal factors assumed to be important (“ The Ottoman empire collapsed for three major reasons”). Students are considered to have good ability to reason historically when they are capable of adducing evidence to fit their causal model of the outcome. “Why” questions are asked twice as frequently in American classrooms as in Japanese classrooms.

Biographers have usually used a western framework in looking at the conflict between Ross and Douglas starting with the fact that they had a feud and then discussing the causal factors “The relationship collapsed for three major reasons…”

Looking at the relationship this way narrows the view and makes every disagreement between them a precursor of the big blow up. It has therefore been common to present the two men always in contrast, almost as mirror images of one another. In the film Wilde, Ross and Douglas are dramatically cast as Wilde’s good angel and his bad angel. If you want to find evidence that Ross and Douglas were always at odds, you can do it. Their relationship was punctuated with a number of arguments.

But then again, Robert Ross’s relationship with Wilde was punctuated by arguments as well and no one says they were not friends. In fact, Ross was drawn to artists with big, colorful personalities and all of the eccentricities and mood swings that come with them. Ross’s partner Freddie Smith, for example, was beautiful, charming and temperamental. George Ives had a relationship with Smith before he became involved with Ross (with a period of overlap) and his diary is full of references to Smith’s difficult character. Ross’s relationship with Smith was also full of arguing, as were his relationships with many of the artists he worked and socialized with. It is only because we know where their relationship finished that we interpret the arguments Ross had with Douglas as steps towards the final destruction.

Assuming that they were rivals from day one makes certain aspects of their story confusing. If they couldn’t stand each other why did Ross immediately join Douglas in France and stay with him for long periods as Wilde was in jail? (“I have a great friend with me who is also a great friend of my poor Oscar,” Douglas wrote to Andre Gide of Ross, “Although I am still very unhappy I can tell you that I feel better and less desperate.”) Why, when he first returned to England after his exile in France did Douglas write to More Adey to say he was “practically living” at Robert Ross’s house? (This after they’d had a disagreement about what Ross’s role might have been in breaking up Douglas’s living arrangement with Wilde.) Why did Ross provide a place for Douglas to meet secretly with the woman he would marry? Why did Douglas hire Ross at the journal he edited and write to others praising his writing? It makes more sense to say that Ross and Douglas, until their big split, were friends who had their ups and downs.  In fact, if they were not close to begin with, they probably would not have been so hurt by the other’s actions.

This brings me to another reason I object to the “saw his chance” frame. It assumes that Ross and Douglas did the things which laid the groundwork for the feud to hurt the other. I am a big believer in context. (That is probably why the initial version of Oscar’s Ghost was three times as long as the publisher wanted.) Ross and Douglas did annoy each other and do things that hurt the other but most of the time (until they were sworn enemies) they were acting to satisfy their own wants and needs, and within the dictates of their own personalities. Ross’s decisions on how to handle Wilde’s prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis, may have had as much to do with business and copyright issues as to Douglas’s sensibilities. Douglas certainly did not become a zealous religious convert in order to annoy Ross, but it had that effect. Douglas’s violent mood swings and outbursts of temper were not specific to Ross, even when they were directed at him.  Douglas had a large number of complex motivations for wanting to sue Arthur Ransome, some involving Ross, and some that had nothing to do with him. The unfortunate result is that two people who once loved each other came crashing into one another.

Context and Civil Disobedience

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These are a couple of posts that came across my social media feed today. As someone who supports the right of gay people to marry if they want (and of people, gay or straight, to choose not to marry without being shamed), I will be happy when there are no more clerks refusing to accept social change.

That said, we are at an interesting moment when people who admire Rosa Parks are saying, “It is the law of the land, you have to follow it.”

The memes above are viscerally satisfying, but the problem with them is that they open up the people who posted them to exactly the same charges of hypocrisy and contradiction. If the underlying question is “Should people engage in civil disobedience?” or “Should people always obey the law?” These are nonsense questions. Anyone who answers the question as posed is made into a hypocrite. The only reasonable answer to such a question is, “I don’t know. What law are we talking about?”

The real question is not “should you follow laws?” It is “which laws must be followed and which should be resisted?” It is not “Should people engage in civil disobedience?” It is “when is it necessary to stand with society and when should you stand against it?”

There is a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.

When I watch a Kentucky clerk going to jail to avoid issuing a marriage license to a couple of guys I think, “Really? That’s the thing? With all of the problems in the world– a couple of middle-aged guys wanting to have their status as a couple legally recognized– this is the one you’re willing to go to the mat for?”

The fundamentalist Christian county clerk and her supporters certainly would take a different view of an “activist” who refused to give gun licenses. (That one is much easier to get around, though. You can buy a gun at a gun show or on the internet without a license. Getting married is more regulated.) They would also be appalled by a clerk who chose what services to provide based on fundamentalist Muslim belief.  They may have cheered Donald Trump when he had Univision reporter Jorge Ramos escorted out of his press conference for asking questions without being called on. You have to follow the rules.

People will always feel differently about those who follow and those who resist laws and social conventions based on how they feel about those laws and social conventions. That’s not hypocrisy and contradiction.  Context matters.

Do Liberals and Conservatives Have a Different Understanding of Human Nautre?

I read an article today in a blog called Traversing. I agree with its conclusions about the dangers of economic inequality and an over-emphasis on the financial sector in our current politics, and that these issues should concern everyone, regardless of party.  There was one section of Andrew Hida’s’s article, however, that I disagreed with.  Hida described what he sees as the difference between the liberal and conservative view of human nature.

Liberals tend to have the more trusting view of human nature, proposing that with sufficient nurturance and encouragement in a climate of love and acceptance, free human beings will gravitate to the good and cleave to their better angels. Freedom of conscience is a supreme value, unrestrained by what are often regarded as societal mores imposed by the dominant culture. Modern liberals tend to be relativistic in this regard, and they are either less religious or they embrace religions that emphasize expansive and fluid interpretations of traditional texts.

Conservatives tend to view human nature more darkly, with eternal vigilance required in tending the war between good and evil in society at large and within the human heart. “Law and order” play critical roles in helping to police our darker impulses and help bend them toward the light. Conformity to tradition and prevailing societal mores is a supreme value, with rules seen in more absolute, right-or-wrong terms. Modern conservatives tend to be more religious in general and to embrace religions emphasizing strict adherence to the guidelines espoused in traditional texts.

And then we get to their respective views of the financial world, modern capitalism, and the role of government in its oversight. Now liberals and conservatives both perform 180-degree pirouettes, leading to incessant finger-pointing by both camps that the other is hypocritical in the extreme.

Ah, but to see the beams in their own eyes.

Although people love to point out the “hypocrisy” of conservatives favoring small government except when it comes to moral issues or liberals loving big government except when it comes to social issues, I think this is not a fair way to look at the positions of people aligned with each of these political sides.

Even though our pundits and politicians like to reduce questions to a simple level: “Is big government good or bad?” Most citizens actually see the question with more nuance. We ask: “In what context?”

If you frame a question as “Are human beings in their basic nature good or sinful?” People might give you an answer, and liberal humanists might say “good” and conservatives, especially conservative Christians from denominations with a focus on sin might say “sinful” but most people do understand that human beings are good-bad, with tendencies towards good and temptations to do the wrong thing.

That is to say, neither side “does a 180” because the big underlying question is not “Are people trustworthy or not?” It is “When should people be trusted?”  What is different is not so much a view about human nature as a view about which temptations and behaviors potentially pose the most danger to society.

Conservatives share a strong belief in the virtue self-reliance. You need to earn respect and trust. So if you have shown that you can run a business you have shown that you are self-reliant and have earned trust. You earn trust by behaving in socially normative, respectable ways, working hard, following the rules. Not all conservatives are Christians, but there is a lot of overlap there. The Bible has a strong cultural focus on honor vs. shame. Those who have demonstrated their value by getting (good) educations, “playing by the rules” and acting in morally upstanding ways that demonstrate strong family values earn honor and trust.

Conservatives worry about the people who have not earned trust in this way. So conservatives feel we need external controls on the behavior of the untrustworthy and when that fails we need guns to protect ourselves from them.

When President Obama says something like “people who work hard and play by the rules should have access to health care,” he is appealing to a conservative point of view.

Conservatives are actually quite optimistic about human nature, they believe in the American Dream and think that anyone with ambition and drive can make it. They tend to downplay or even to be unaware of systemic obstacles that might make it more difficult for some people than others to succeed. Anyone can do it!  So conservatives are not inconsistent in wanting control in the bedroom but not the boardroom. Those who misbehave by breaking moral codes have not earned trust and those who succeed have shown they are respectable and have earned trust and can be given more leeway.

Liberals are not hypocritical in wanting to put restrictions on Wall Street, and to have greater control on guns and also to keep government out of religion and our family structures. Hida asked in his article “Can’t rich corporate types be moral, too?” The difference here is not that liberals think that rich people cannot be moral individuals. (Conservatives also think that the poor can be moral individuals.)

Liberals are more aware of systemic obstacles and the danger of people in power rigging systems to their advantage and to the disadvantage of “the least of these.”  Just as a social system might incline an otherwise good poor person to join a gang or get involved in criminal activity, a social system can give incentives to otherwise good rich and powerful people to behave in ways that are detrimental to society– especially if a corporate structure makes a person far removed from the negative consequences of his actions.

Liberals are aware of how moral policing can be a tool of those in power to keep certain people marginalized and to justify other people’s privilege. So being against social control of vice issues and being in favor of policing of the powerful is logically consistent.

The other point here is that only the most extreme ideologues on either side take the view that government/regulation is always the solution or government is never the solution to societal problems. Most people are in the middle with sympathies that align somewhat with their idea of one side or the other.