When you start doing interviews to promote a book, you have no idea what people are going to ask you. The more you do it, the more patterns emerge. You get an idea of what your own book is from the way people respond to it. You also get better at talking about you work as this process focuses you.
Oscar’s Ghost is about the long-simmering feud between Oscar Wilde’s friends Robert Ross and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas after Wilde’s death. In the few interviews that I have done so far, one question has been consistent, and it’s strange that I never anticipated it.
What people want to know about the feud is: Who won?
For a short time after he was released from jail, Oscar lived with Bosie in Naples. During this interlude, he composed The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Bosie was understandably curious about the refrain, “Each man kills the thing he loves.”
The first time he asked, Oscar brushed the question aside. That did not satisfy Bosie, and so he asked again. “What did you mean by ‘Each man kills the thing he loves?'”
“You ought to know,” was his reply.
Bosie did not ask again.
But he did not know. The line cut both ways. Was he the killer or the killed in the metaphor? The destroyer or the destroyed? Had Oscar written an expression of blame or of regret?
Bosie spent many years trying to answer that question in his own mind.
He eventually found his path to absolution in strict Catholicism. Oscar’s deathbed conversion was central. Bosie wrote:
The difference it makes in the way I am able to think of Oscar is, of course, tremendous; chiefly because the fact of his wishing to die a Catholic implies a certain state of mind which connotes a number of other things. For example, a man becoming a Catholic must ipso facto, if his conversion be genuine, “forgive all those who have injured him and ask pardon of all whom he has injured…”
Christ was the solution. Bosie became devoted to a strict form of religion to absolve himself of his guilt and shame. Bosie’s transformation from Bohemian to religious moralist never sit well with Robbie. Thus the very thing that gave Bosie a level of peace and satisfaction drove a wedge between the friends that laid the groundwork for Robbie to circulate unpublished portions of De Profundis.
De Profundis was Wilde’s victory over incarceration and public humiliation. It was part catharsis, part personal letter and a large part artistry. Using the events of his own life as material he told a story that expanded on a motif that had always fascinated him as an artist. He had dramatized it in Salome and the Picture of Dorian Gray before he and Bosie ever met: Love destroys its object.
In De Profundis, he took this idea a step further by demonstrating the even greater passion of continuing to love the object of your own destruction. By writing, he transcended the depths of despair and created an enduring literary work.
Today they mount art installations in Wilde’s former jail cell and poets gather to read De Profundis aloud– a powerful rebuke of the Philistines, Wilde triumphant. But that same artistic statement tore Bosie apart when he finally read it, years after his lover’s death.
In 1912, Robert Ross, now a noted art critic as well as Wilde’s literary executor, weighed in on one of the artistic controversies of his day. The Temple of Isis at Philae in Egypt was going to be flooded in order to build the Assuan Dam. A letter to the Times defended the destruction because of the economic development a dam promised. The writer said he was sure that if an art lover, a baby and the Dresden Madonna were in a burning tower, the art lover would save the baby rather than the picture.
Ross wrote to reply that he hoped that he would save the picture rather than the baby.
Indeed, there are many other works of art for which, sitting beside a patent fire extinguisher, I find it easy to think that I would lay down my life; there are few adults or babies for whom I would make any such sacrifice.
Ross was, indeed, faced with such a choice when it came to De Profundis. To make the contents of the document known was to sacrifice Bosie. It would ruin him with polite society with its evidence that Bosie was homosexual. It would also ruin him in the counterculture of men who worshiped Wilde because it presented him as the sole cause of Wilde’s downfall.
When I was asked “who won” the second time I answered that perhaps it was Ross as he was the one who accomplished what he set out to do. He had preserved a document that Wilde had once told him was the most important thing he had ever written. He amplified its message by gently guiding biographers. It was through Ross that Wilde was able to make his own life story into a work of art.
But did Ross win?
De Profundis, that beautiful essay, left a lot of pain in its wake. Its text attacked all of the pillars of Bosie’s self-esteem. It denied what had been Bosie’s proudest accomplishment– the way he had stood by Wilde through thick and thin. It claimed that Bosie interfered with Oscar’s work, and stole Bosie’s pride at being his mentor’s muse. It even mocked Bosie’s poetry as “undergraduate verse.” To have everything he was most proud of denied by the man he loved most was emotionally overwhelming.
By the time Bosie read the full version of De Profundis, Oscar was dead. He could not ask him again what he meant by “Each man kills the thing he loves.” He could not understand why Oscar had not told him about these resentments when they were living together or in all of the time they spent together afterwards. If he hadn’t said anything while sober, why hadn’t he blurted something out when he was drunk? He pondered this question in one of his autobiographical books. In each of his books he wrestled with the question of De Profundis, Oscar’s silence about it, and how it contradicted his own memory of their love affair.
Unable to confront Oscar, an increasingly bitter and unstable Bosie attacked Robbie with every means at his disposal. Robbie spent his last years consumed by legal trials, bothered by stress, paranoia and ill-health. Perhaps we could say that he did, in the end, live up to his ideals and lay down his own life to save a work of art.