“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”-Acts 3:15, English Standard Version
If you pay attention to things Oscar Wilde, you’ve probably seen the stories about the Oscar Wilde Shrine in the Church of the Village. (The link is to a story in Vogue, of all places, but the installation has been widely featured.)
I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about the idea of a shrine to the man Max Beerbohm once jokingly referred to as “the Divinity.”
As I mused on this, it occurred to me that if Wilde is “the divinity” then the story I tell in Oscar’s Ghost is The Acts of the Apostles.
A martyr needs a resurrection, and in our story this was provided by Robert Ross acting, like St. Paul, as the most devoted evangelist of the good news of the meaning of the man’s life, his early death, and his rebirth as an artistic, literary and cultural symbol.
As with the Biblical apostles, Oscar’s apostles were divided on the meaning of the events they had experienced. Paul’s letters chronicle his split with “the elders” on the issue. By the time Acts was written, a more cohesive narrative was starting to emerge– but then again maybe it wasn’t as Luke said he was only writing to set the record straight. In Acts, Paul and the Elders seem much more on the same page.
Incidentally, this is what Paul and the Elders agree as the most important commands to the gentile converts to their young religion:
“Abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from what has been strangled and from blood.”
This is important, as it is repeated quite a bit in Acts.
But I digress…
Wilde’s literary executor, Robert Ross, was responsible for many of the aspects of modern mythology of Wilde. In this he performed a delicate balancing act. He edited Wilde’s works to make them more cohesive, at times cutting passages that could be interpreted as homoerotic. He wrote critically about Wilde in the voice of the respectable “us” not the marginalized “them” to persuade polite society that Wilde was not dangerous to read. At the same time, he tacitly encouraged some of the underground uses of Oscar Wilde as a symbol within the homosexual community. He nudged biographers to see Wilde’s story as a classic tragedy, an operatic fall with a tragic end.
His efforts to tell the story and to resurrect Wilde were colored by his own misgivings about his part in the affair, as were Lord Alfred Douglas’s attempts to put an end to a narrative that held him entirely responsible.
I found in the course of my research that in the early years after Wilde’s death it was common for people to blame his downfall on “the quality of his admirers”– in the plural– who encouraged his follies. Robert Ross was largely responsible for shifting the focus from “admirers” to one “admirer”– Douglas.
Over the years people have looked at the bitter rivalry between Ross and Douglas in their middle years and assumed that only romantic jealousy could fuel a conflict so heated. I see something else at work.
New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman wrote of the apostles:
The much beloved teacher of the disciples— the one for whom they had given up everything and to whom they had devoted their lives— was suddenly and brutally taken away from them, publicly humiliated, tortured, and crucified. According to our early records, the disciples had plenty of reasons for feeling guilt and shame over how they had failed Jesus both during his life and at his greatest time of need. Soon thereafter— and for some time to come?— some of them believed they had encountered him after his death. They were deeply comforted by his presence and felt his forgiveness. They had not expected to have these experiences, which had come upon them suddenly and with a vividness that made them believe that their beloved teacher was still alive.
Ross and Douglas shared the same deep wound. Could they have done more (or less)and saved their friend from his fate? Had they, paraphrasing Oscar, killed the thing they loved? The skirmishes can seem petty to outsiders, but to them these were not minor points. They were the kinds of regrets that keep people up at night. Each man had to reassure himself, as much as he wanted to tell the world, that it was not his fault. Given who they were, and the circumstances they were in, they had done the best they could.