Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde and The Irony of Atonement

wilde-fansEngland feels really bad about what it did to Oscar Wilde.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that they just posthumously pardoned him, along with thousands of other gay men. The apologies continue at the National Portrait Gallery where portraits of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas are being displayed side by side to mark society’s change in attitudes. The Evening Standard reports that this is part of a show marking the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.

We’ve come a long way since William Powell offered to paint Wilde out of his “A Private View at the Royal Academy” in the wake of Wilde’s trials.

There is a small irony, however, in using Wilde to celebrate the 1967 change in the law.
If Wilde had been tried under the Sexual Offences Act of 1967,  he would have received a five year sentence rather than the two year sentence he did under the LaBouchere Amendment. The law that decriminalized gay sex set the age of consent at 21 and almost all of Wilde’s partners mentioned in court were younger than that, the youngest being sixteen and seventeen. (In 1994, the age of homosexual consent was lowered to 18 and then, in 2000, to sixteen bringing it in line with the age of heterosexual consent.)

To paraphrase our president: Who knew that history was so complicated?

Personal Memories and Historical Memory

CoverHaving been immersed in Oscar’s Ghost for some time, I finally had a chance to do my first pleasure reading in more than a year. I found, on my shelf, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. (It seems they made a movie of this book. It is one of those novels that is so internal, it is hard for me to imagine its translation to film.)

I was looking for something refreshingly Oscar Wilde free. My forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost, if you were not already aware deals with a long and bitter feud between Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas and the man who would become his literary executor Robert Ross in the years following Wilde’s death.

Inevitably, it seems, I was not permitted to exorcise myself entirely from Oscar’s Ghost. The Sense of an Ending deals with memory, how we create narratives to explain ourselves to others and our lives to ourselves. We remember episodes that confirm our stories, forget episodes that do not. We make assumptions to fill in missing information, and these assumptions in turn color and shape our memories of events.

This led me back to Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. Their feud had many complex causes, but at its heart, it had to do with the past and who would win the right to interpret those events. Who, or what, had been responsible for Oscar Wilde’s downfall? By the time their feud broke out, the two friends had largely gone their separate ways. They had entirely different views on politics and ran in different social circles. Each had a different interpretation of what had happened all those years ago. Those interpretations had consequences for who they believed themselves to be.

One of the pitfalls of writing a biography is that there is a compression of time. We read about the actions of Ross and Douglas in their 20s and a few pages later they are in their 40s. We see the continuity, whereas the men themselves experienced many shifts in perception and developed new ways of understanding themselves and their pasts. In twenty years, there were episodes and attitudes that had been put aside or forgotten. Each man had constantly rewritten his story emphasizing certain moments, contextualizing others and forgetting others still in order to remain true to his story of himself.

Old letters played a huge role in Ross and Douglas’s conflict. It began with the revelation of Wilde’s prison letter, De Profundis, a letter full of recriminations against Douglas. Douglas did not read the full text, which was in Ross’s possession, until years after Wilde’s death and it challenged his memories of his relationship with Wilde in a way that was traumatic for him. In the legal battles which ensued, Ross produced old letters that Douglas had written to him in his youth. The letters had the tone of a wounded adolescent, rebellious, fascinated with sex, and melodramatic about love. By now, he was a middle aged man, a new and zealous convert to Catholicism who disapproved of the excesses of his youth.

I was drawn back to the conflict when I read Barnes describing his protagonist reading a nasty letter he had written to an old girlfriend after a break up decades before.

I reread this letter several times. I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I didn’t recognise that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception… My younger self had come back to shock my older  self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.

If you have ever found an old diary or letter you wrote decades ago, you will relate to this passage. What a strange experience it can be reading words that were written by someone with a biographical connection to you who is still, somehow, not quite you– the person you believe yourself to be today.

Our memories are not always historically accurate, although we believe them to be. This is important when considering the story of Douglas and Ross. Wilde’s imprisonment and early death was a traumatic event for each, and each did a lot of internal work to understand his own role in it. Neither man’s account can be taken entirely at face value. When Ross’s accounts in the context of the legal battles fail to conform to what can be documented, or when Douglas’s views of his friendship with Wilde are more rosy than the De Profundis account or his memories of his own attitudes and emotions shift, we are inclined to view them as liars. In fact, they were something else. They were human beings with the same fallible and changeable memories as the rest of us.

Doomed to Repeat It?


If you noticed that the frequency of my blog posts has gone down substantially this past year, it is because I was working on a labor-intensive bit of historical research for a forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost.  (The photos above show only a small portion of the books and notes I used. These are the ones I lugged on “vacation.”) Oscar’s Ghost tells the story of a bitter posthumous feud over Oscar Wilde’s legacy between two of his closest friends. It covers a period from the late 19th Century, leading up to Oscar Wilde’s arrest and death in 1900 and the inter-war years. (Lord Alfred Douglas, one of the two main characters lived from 1870 to 1945.)

When you delve into another era like that you inevitably find resonances between their time and our own. In the 1890s when Lord Alfred Douglas and Wilde’s eventual literary executor Robert Ross were young men London was at the center of the world. The British Empire was nearly at its peak when it would span 14 million square miles of the globe and include more than a quarter of the planet’s population. It’s absolute peak came in 1914. It was the largest empire the world has ever seen. It so dominated commerce that it could effectively control the economies of countries that were not officially colonies. Young British aristocrats had the world for a playground. They commonly set out on adventures seeking their fortunes in South African and Australian mining colonies or in the timberlands of Canada. They set out to India and North Africa for exotic vacations. London was also becoming a hub of activity for the working class as industrialization moved many young men from farms to the city. The prosperity also attracted immigrants. From 1800 to 1890 the population of London soared from less than a million to more than four million.

It was in this very period, when they should have been celebrating their unprecedented power and prestige, that England began to experience an undercurrent of anxiety and a sense that they were losing ground. “Decay” became a buzzword. There was a fear that old values were eroding, that unchecked effeminancy was dissipating the soldiers, that England was losing its cultural treasures and its cohesive sense of Britishness. (Robert Ross, in the early 20th century wrote an essay with the title “There is No Decay” arguing against the notion.)

In some ways, this makes perfect sense. Human beings are more motivated by the fear of loss than by dreams of gain. When they were the masters of all they could see, there were few more worlds to conquer and nothing to do but look back with nostalgia and to worry about all they now had to lose.

Thus I am repeatedly struck by the off-hand remarks we see regularly in the news about how awful things are in America at this moment in history. As Klaus Brinkbaumer wrote in Der Spiegel, “The fact that the United States, a nuclear superpower that has dominated the world economically, militarily and culturally for decades, is now presenting itself as the victim, calling in all seriousness for ‘America first’ and trying to force the rest of the world into humiliating concessions is absurd. But precisely because this nonsense is coming from the world’s most powerful man, it is getting trapped by him.”

In England, a Century ago, the rhetoric of “decay” was driven by those with the most to lose; the very people who had been granted the most– the aristocracy. Industrialization had changed the economy, the landed estates were no longer supporting the Lords and Ladies as they used to. The middle class was ascendant. The upper classes, however, still had a big microphone and the ability to shape public discourse. They were some of the loudest voices promoting the notion of “decay.”

The continued erosion of the aristocrats’ way of life caused a great fear that they were becoming, in the words of D. Pryce Jones, “in a scrap heap instead of a social class.” They knew they were not to blame for this state of affairs. So they sought scapegoats and embraced extreme ideologies especially on the far right, but also sometimes to the far left.

The far right drew from, among other sources, a series of exposes on immigration written by Oscar Wilde’s old friend Robert Sherard. While his xenophobic articles describing immigrants as physically and morally degenerate did not specifically refer to them as Jewish, there were enough coded references to allow his readers to make the inference. An undercurrent of discourse at this time linked Jews to anarchism and socialism, even though Jewish immigrants were not prominent in those groups; and to criminality, even though statistics did not bear this out. It did not matter that there were no facts to back up the prejudices. (See Holms, Colin. Anti-Semitism in British Society 1876-1939. New York: Holms & Meier Publishers, 1979.) A population that feared decay was looking for an outside force to blame. Immigrants, especially of another religion, were an obvious choice. The period of history I examined is rife with anti-Jewish sentiment throughout Europe. In France there was the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish officer became a convenient scapegoat in an espionage scandal. (Oscar Wilde was then living in France and he and a number of members of his circle got caught up in the hysteria. Wilde befriended the real spy Esterhazy.)

Lord Alfred Douglas’s good friend Freddie Manners-Sutton (the 5th Viscount of Canterbury) was prepared to disseminate the most extreme version of such prejudice, by publishing a controversial posthumous work by Sir Richard Burton. The Jew, the Gypsy and El Islam was an attack on what Burton saw as the cruelty of Judaism. Its most contentious chapter claimed that Jews had been involved in human sacrifice and ritual murder. Burton’s executor, W.H. Wilkins, had been skittish about publishing any of the book but felt he could not go against the wishes of the deceased author. He did, however, cut the most offending section. Somehow Sutton got wind of this and bought the chapter from Wilkins with the intent to publish. This led to a lawsuit, in 1911, by D.L. Alexander who claimed Wilkins had no right to sell the material and successfully received an injunction to prevent its publication. These extreme points of view were gaining prominence in certain segments of Lord Alfred Douglas’s social circle and were increasingly shaping his worldview to the point that he eventually became editor of a journal known more for its anti-semitism than its poetry. This would forever tarnish his legacy. He had been convinced there was a broad Jewish banking conspiracy by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a piece of fabricated anti-Jewish propaganda that was widely disseminated prior to the Second World War. It was the early 20th Century version of “fake news.” (A good book on this subject is Paranoid Apocalypse by Steven Katz.)

Homosexuals were another convenient scapegoat. One of the last volleys in the battle between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross was a bizarre libel trial in which a conservative MP, Noel Pemberton-Billing, used the courts to promote conspiracy theories about British soldiers losing the Great War because they were being seduced by German Jewish men and women on the homefront were becoming lesbians. He claimed he knew of a“Black Book” in which the Germans kept a list of 47,000 sex perverts so they could blackmail prominent English politicians and generals into committing espionage and treason.

Billing was a curious purity crusader. Tall and handsome with strong cheekbones and a confident charisma, he was “an archetypal playboy” and womanizer. He was wealthy and flashy, doing his political campaigning from an impressive yellow Rolls-Royce. The trial had a circus-like atmosphere. It played like a modern reality TV drama and included such sideshows as Lord Alfred Douglas calling his former lover, Oscar Wilde, “the greatest force for evil in the last 350 years.” The ridiculous spectacle distracted many people from the dangerous undercurrent of homophobia, xenophobia, and racism that Billing was peddling.

Today I read George Takei’s excellent article on Japanese Internment Remembrance Day. The actor, who spent part of his childhood in an internment camp because of his ethnicity, writes:

I cannot help but hear in these words terrible echoes from the past. The internment happened because of three things: fear, prejudice and a failure of political leadership… The false narrative — that there are those who belong here and those who do not — is designed precisely to divorce us from the truth that we are all here and in this together. We are an interdependent people, sharing a common bond of humanity…

The question before us, then, on Remembrance Day is a simple one: Will America remember? The internment is not a “precedent,” it is a stark and painful lesson. We will only learn from the past if we know, understand and remember it. For if we fail, we most assuredly are doomed to repeat it.

 

 

 

“Regulations” vs. “Laws”

Our new Congress is ready to get to work eliminating regulations, which, they believe stand in the way of a healthy economy by placing burdens on business. The president has even proposed eliminating all regulations through an exponential process in which the passage of any new regulation would require the elimination of two other regulations. “We want to create some guidelines for self-driving cars, so do you want to allow glass in your food or to get rid of the codes that ensure bridges don’t fall down?”

“Regulations” in our current political climate are almost always presented as bad, whereas “laws” are good. It is often the same candidate who runs on a platform of law and order and eliminating regulations. Yet on their most basic level, laws and regulations are the same thing. They are guidelines that set the boundaries of how we are to live together as citizens. In common parlance, if you have a coal company and you want to dump your coal dust in local waterways, there is a regulation about that.  If you want to stand at the edge of a public pool and piss into it, you are violating the law. (Congress is sympathetic to one of these uses of shared water. Can you guess which one?)

Whether a it is called regulation or a law, it is an instruction that limits certain behaviors by imposing a penalty that is socially enforced by courts and police. By their nature, they stand in the way of someone’s interests in balance of the interests of others. Having a speed limit means that we can’t get where we’re going as fast as we’d like, but we’re less likely to have fatal road accidents. If you have a nearby park and would like to use it to swim naked in the fountain you will be thwarted by law. Now frolicking naked is a perfectly legitimate way to spend an afternoon, and people who want to pic nic without seeing your bare behind just have a competing way they’d like to use the space, but legislators decided that there are probably more people who want parks without nudity than those that do and the only way to be sure that this happens is to make it a law.

Regulations work the same way. It may be cheaper for a company to create a workplace where, occasionally a laborer falls into a shredder than to install safety devices. Yet we’ve decided as a society that protecting the life of the laborer should outweigh the inconvenience and cost to the employer and we legislated accordingly.

Talking about being tough on “crime” (breaking the law) while wanting to eliminate “regulations” generally speaking protects the interests of one social class over another. It is a law that the poor person cannot steal from a store. It is a regulation that the store has to give its employees reasonable work hours, breaks and overtime pay. In both cases, there is an entity that is harmed. The owner of the store is harmed by theft. The employee is harmed by being required to put in unpaid overtime. The financial value of these two infractions could be equal if the shoplifter can lift a lot of big screen TVs, but the value of the underpayment is likely to be more. If you’re tough on the crime of theft and think it should be up to the business owner to determine what is fair, you are siding with the store owner in each case. The philosophy behind this seems to be that the person who owns a business is by virtue of his social status to be trusted, whereas everyday workers and citizens need to have their behavior controlled.

In July 2015, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was celebrating its 25th anniversary, the New Republic wondered if there was any chance it would be passed today. It was signed into law by George W. Bush, but, Brian Beutler wrote, “these protections are the products of a lost era in which Republican politics didn’t reactively foreclose the idea of using federal power in service of the common good.” He concluded that if the ADA did not already exist, we would not get it.

Laws and regulations are restrictions and they can make sense or not. (Example: the Alabama law that says you can’t wear a fake mustache that makes people laugh in church.) Society is not static, and it makes sense to revisit our laws and regulations from time to time. In the UK, for example, they just posthumously pardoned thousands of gay men who had been jailed for the crime of “gross indecency with another male person.” At the time, it seemed to the citizenry, that requiring sexual non-conformists to behave was a social good and that the cost to the individuals was outweighed by the need of the community to impose a heterosexual norm. There were some high profile cases that started to make people wonder if the benefits of conformity were really worth the cost to society of, say, cutting short the lives and careers of Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde. British society has decided not only to change the law, but to symbolically show they regret that they had ever written it. (Of course, the realization comes a bit late for the other men whose lives were torn apart and the friends and families who were hurt along with them.)

To talk about eliminating “regulations” in the abstract makes no sense. When it comes to regulations, the real question should be, who is inconvenienced or harmed by having or not having the regulation, how much, how effective is the regulation at protecting those it was designed to protect, is there a way to achieve that end that is less of a burden to other stakeholders. In short, what are the social costs of making (or keeping) a rule or not making a rule.

 

 

Do What You Love, The Audience Will Follow

 

“Never play to the gallery,” says David Bowie in the clip above.

I discovered something interesting when I looked at the logs for my blog. (My blog logs.) Conventional wisdom is that writers need to blog in order to build “an author platform.” The way to build such a platform is to have a consistent, recognizable topic or area of expertise.

A funny thing happened. I started this blog when I branched out into fiction as a way to distinguish my fiction writing persona from my non-fiction writing persona. Initially I wrote largely on subjects that touched on the theme of my first novel.

Eventually, however, I lost interest in those constraints as I moved on to other projects. I started to post on whatever topic caught my interest on a given day, whenever I felt as though I had something worth sharing.

A number of years ago I started reading a great deal about Oscar Wilde and his circle. This had nothing to do with any book I was writing at the time (although it has come full circle as I have sold a book on this topic and am working on it now).  From an “author platform” perspective, it made no sense to post about Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and the like. It had nothing at all to do with my second novel, which is about personal identity, rock stars and online impersonation. If I was trying to create a Laura Lee brand the Wilde posts only muddled things.

Yet those posts are consistently popular. Now, I can’t say that this means that all of the people who googled “Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth” and landed on my page can be claimed as “my audience.” They came for Wilde, not Lee. I get that. But they do come, which is more than they were doing before. Maybe some read what else I’ve written and find some through-line that persuades them to stay. Now that I am actually writing a Wilde-related book it has come full circle, the “platform” was built without conscious thought or effort because I wrote about what was interesting to me.

Do what you love, the audience will follow. Or maybe they won’t. In any case, it is a more pleasant way to spend your life than doing what you don’t love.

A Birthday Present from the Guardian

Today is my birthday. I logged on to my blog for the first time in a number of days (as I am wrapping up my summer tour as we speak) and I found to my delight and confusion one of my posts had suddenly and inexplicably gotten more than 300 hits. After a bit of investigation, I discovered that The Guardian linked to my post on Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol. Thanks for the birthday present, Guardian.

“The Mask is Our Truer Self”

I’ve given a lot of thought to Oscar Wilde’s phrase “give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth,” if for no other reason that the post I wrote on it a while back is my most perennially popular, generating a good 20 hits or so a day. (Not that I obsessively check my blog stats to see what kind of impression I am making on the outside world.)

I’ve been reading Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. He quotes Robert Ezra Park saying “It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person,in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves.”

Goffman continues, “In a sense, and in so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves– the role we are striving to live up to– this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be.”

It struck me suddenly while reading this that Wilde’s aphorism seems to imply that a man is not wearing a mask to begin with– he must be given one. But if the persona is a mask to begin with, then a mask would only mask the mask.

Perhaps by disguising the mask that is your “truer self” (the way you want to be seen) with a mask that allows you to express your faults and foibles (Wilde’s “truth”)  without suffering the consequences you end up at some kind of equilibrium, but in fact this whole notion is throwing me a bit off balance…that is, if there is a “me” to be thrown…