Story Telling

Beautiful Untrue Things

“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.”-Oscar Wildewi-3

(There is a new book by Gregory Mackie by this title, but that is not what this post will be about.)

Have you seen this quote on an Etsy cross stitch or t-shirt? “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde.

This thought obviously strikes a chord in our times. Wilde never actually said it, nevertheless it is one of his most famous sayings, along with another thing he never said “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

If you look up posts on Twitter, you will invariably find this quote and attribution, and occasionally Wilde experts will chime in to correct it, but it never makes a dent. The misquotations outnumber the corrections 500 to 1, maybe more.

I once tweeted, in response to one of the corrections, that maybe we should just give up and let that be an actual thing Wilde said.

“Never,” came the reply.

So Wilde didn’t say that.

But my saying so will not do much to stem the tide.

Nor, I am afraid, has my research done anything to put a dent in the popular narrative about Oscar Wilde: Living a peaceful, upstanding life until he met the spoiled and reckless Lord Alfred Douglas, who introduced Wilde to “the streets,” Wilde tried to get away from him, but could not resist him. Douglas led him into a dangerous battle with his father, coerced him into a clearly reckless libel suit, which everyone else urged Wilde not to file, abandoned him when he went to jail, and tried to tarnish his legacy years later.

Anyone who follows stories about Oscar Wilde in the media (social and traditional) will encounter variants on this story. Some parts of this story are just plain wrong: Douglas did not abandon Wilde. Nor was he the only one who encouraged Wilde in his libel suit. Many people, including most newspaper journalists, thought it would be a disaster for Queensberry, not Wilde. Some rest on little evidence: the idea that it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to “rough trade.” Some is complicated: the nature of Wilde and Douglas’s relationship. Some, like Douglas’s mid-life religious conversion and bitterness towards Wilde, deserve more contextualization than they usually get. It is, as I see it, and wonderfully complex story, full of colorful characters with good and bad traits, all story-tellers with a desire to spin events as their own personalities dictate. So much nuance, which is so often lost in the re-telling.

Should I just give up and let the popular version be the history?

 

 

Robbie and Constance

I’ve been thinking a bit about Rupert Everett’s “Happy Prince” since I wrote my review. (In which, incidentally, I incorrectly said Wilde’s children’s story The Happy Prince was used in both this film and the 1997 film Wilde starting Stephen Fry. In that film the story The Selfish Giant was used. Pardon my memory lapse.)

As I mentioned, one scene that struck a chord with me was the one between Robert Ross and Constance Wilde. More precisely, I was taken by a scene between Robbie and Oscar, in which Robbie chides his friend for trying to smooth things over with his wife with one kind letter (as he tried to smooth things over with Robbie) juxtaposed with the scene between Constance and Robbie, in which Constance makes the realization that she and Robbie both love Oscar. I suppose, if one were being strict, in a film that is so much from Wilde’s point of view, the scene shouldn’t exist because Wilde would not have seen it, but that would be a shame. The sense of identification between these characters was touching. It is the way I would like it to have been.

I’m afraid I’m not sure it was. Robbie had always been willing to help Oscar’s wife, and after a period of distrust, she came to value his assistance, but he never seemed to respect her as an intellectual or social equal. More Adey, who was his partner in trying to negotiate with the Wilde family, didn’t like her. Their insistence in bidding against Constance Wilde on her life interest while Oscar was in jail– against Oscar’s direct instructions and nearly everyone’s advice, doesn’t suggest that they were particularly empathetic to her or adept at considering her point of view.

Robbie’s paternalistic view is best summed up with the anecdote he chose to relate to Hesketh Pearson in a rare interview.

One day, when I was with them at Tite Street, she asked him if he would come in for lunch on the following day, as some old Dublin friends (a clergyman among them) were coming to see her and very much wanted to meet him. Oscar, to whom this sort of thing was the reverse of attractive said: ‘All right, my dear, if Bobbie can come as well.’ Of course she asked me, though I knew she didn’t want to, and it was then and there arranged. We found his wife’s friends the typical provincial sort, full of their own local news and not much else. Oscar talked during lunch as I never heard him talk before—divinely. Had the company included the Queen and all the Royal Family, he couldn’t have surpassed himself. Humour, tale, epigram, flowed from his lips, and his listeners sat spellbound under the influence. Suddenly in the midst of one of his most entrancing stories– his audience with wide eyes and parted mouths, their food untasted– his wife broke in: ‘Oh, Oscar did you remember to call for Cyril’s boots?

One of Robbie’s less admirable traits was that he often spoke kindly to a person to his or her face, and then gossiped and complained about them behind their back. Robbie’s anecdote probably reflects how Wilde’s homosexual/artist circle viewed his wife. (Interestingly, Lord Alfred Douglas always wrote kind things about her publicly, and insisted they were good friends.) So I don’t think Robbie identified with her, but he did feel for her. He did believe she was mistreated by her husband and he was protective of her.

One of the lasting effects of witnessing what happened to Constance was that Robbie, for the rest of his life, discouraged the marriages of many men in his circle– often at the risk of ending friendships. Some of these men were known to be “homosexualists” others were sometimes suspected of it. He was against Lord Alfred Douglas’s marriage to Olive Custance, although he did nothing to stand in its way.

He tried to intervene in Max Beerbohm’s long, passionless engagement with the actress Grace “Kilseen” Conover. Max described her in a letter to Reggie Turner as “a dark Irish girl of twenty, very blunt and rude who hates affectation and rather likes me.” After describing his love for her, and his intentions to woo her in rather lukewarm terms he implored Reggie “Do be sympathetic.”

Max’s family had mixed feelings about the union. While they disliked her abrasive personality and considered her common, they were pleased that she put to rest rumors about Max’s sexuality and “diverted” him from “an unfortunate set– dangerous friends.” About the only thing they did like about Conover’s bluntness is that she’d told Max directly that his relationship with members of the Wilde circle was harming him.

Max’s infatuation with Kilseen was short-lived. They were great friends, and would be so for the rest of their lives, but there was no real passion on Max’s part. He was in no hurry to close the deal but was also unwilling to break it off.

In 1901 Robbie invited Kisleen to lunch to address the “difficult subject” of her engagement. Kilseen wrote later saying that she appreciated the kindness in his concern. “I won’t say any more about it. I feel mean discussing it even. Mean to Max, for either I should not discuss it, or I should break it off. But all the arguments on the earth cannot undo the last six years. All I ask Max’s friends is not to judge him too unkindly…I don’t want the added unhappiness of thinking that Max has lost any of his friends through me.”

In spite of Ross’s intervention, the engagement dragged on until 1903 when Max fell in love with another woman, Constance Collier, and finally freed Kilseen.

An entire chapter of Oscar’s Ghost is devoted to one of Robbie’s romantic interventions. This time he worked to prevent the marriage of Coleridge Kennard and a married woman named Yoi Buckley. In this case, Robbie did not act to protect Buckley– but to protect Kennard from a scandal involving her. Even so, there are a few things about Kennard that bear mentioning.

Maria Roberts, who wrote a biography of Ross’s lover Freddie Smith, while acknowledging Kennard’s many heterosexual affairs, calls the rumor that he was bisexual “at least plausible…and rumors of this occasionally seem to have emerged.”

Kennard was a dandy and a friend to many in the Oscar Wilde circle. The French artist Jacques Emile Blanche had captured this side of his personality in a 1904 portrait “Sir Coleridge Kennard sitting of a sofa.” The portrait, in the style of Gainsborough, shows Kennard as a luxuriating aristocrat, with elongated fingers, crossed legs, and a dandy’s bearing. His mother, the Wilde benefactor Helen Carew, would not allow the painting to be exhibited between 1908 and 1924. When it was finally shown in Paris that year, she would not allow it to include her son’s name. The effect created by the image can be surmised by the title the exhibitor gave it: “The Portrait of Dorian Gray.”

In addition to this, Roberts cites Kennard’s posthumously published Olympia which contained a homoerotic romance between an older man, Mirza and a beautiful boy named Alizdel with eyes “as languorous as the/ eyes of a gazelle in springtime;/ his lips as luscious/ as a ripe fruit.”Throughout 1912, Freddie Smith spent a lot of time abroad and Roberts suggests that he spent this time with Kennard at his villa in Antibes.

One last example comes from the the war years when soldier/poets on leave found refuge at Ross’s rooms in Half Moon Street. One of the poets who sometimes stayed was Robert Graves, a young man with thick dark hair and a homosexual past, who was out on leave recovering from shell shock. He had met Ross through Siegfried Sassoon. Robbie advised him on his poetry and on his personal life. In January 1918, Ross, continuing a long tradition of discouraging matrimony, told Graves he should not marry the eighteen-year-old Nancy Nicholson because they were too young and neither had any money. His letter did not mention Graves homosexual history, but it was undoubtedly a major factor in his disapproval. Like most of Ross’s friends, Graves ignored his marital advice. The marriage lasted only a few years.

(He was more successful in turning Graves against Scott Moncrieff. Robbie disapproved of the way Moncrieff was making advances to the poet Wilfred Owen–who was in love with Siegfried Sassoon. He shared his views with Graves, and he abruptly cut off his heretofore warm correspondence in May 1918.)

Maybe Robbie’s interventions in these marriages dates back to his memory of Constance Wilde, or maybe they were just symptoms of a larger habit of involving himself in the personal dramas of his friends.

In any case, we, the audience, recognize the pain that connected Robert Ross and Constance Wilde. The film presents that effectively as a good story should.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

How the Story Ends: Thoughts on the Move Christine (2016)

The 2016 film Christine is based on the true story of a Sarasota local news personality Christine Chubbuck. I did not know her story when I selected the film under the category “critically acclaimed dramas” on my streaming service. The blurb described the movie this way: “In a film based on true events, an awkward but ambitious TV reporter struggles to adapt when she’s ordered to focus on violent and salacious stories.” Journalism movies are a genre I often like, so I selected it. It was not at all what I had been expecting based on the description.

In retrospect, I believe I had read about Chubbuck when I was studying broadcasting in college, but I didn’t connect it to the film I was watching. The filmmakers undoubtedly assumed that the people who bought tickets would know how the story ends. It is not a spoiler to say that what is best known about Chubbuck is how her life ended. One morning on live TV before her regular segment she read the following “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first: an attempted suicide.” And then she shot herself on live television.

 

Had I watched the trailer before selecting the film, I would have had more of a sense of its tone. This is one case where I feel knowing the ending in advance would have made the experience of watching the film better. It would have added a tension and urgency to what was unfolding on screen. Instead, I spent most of the film wondering why I was watching this woman struggle with mental illness. What was the purpose, the point of view, of this story?

It is, however, a film that has stayed with me and in retrospect, what seemed to be its weaknesses while I was watching, are its strengths. It is a film in which easy answers and clear villains are absent. She has co-workers and family who are patient with her mood swings and who want to help. Chubbuck’s frustration with the shift towards sensationalism for ratings is present, but it is not a bogey man, just one of many problems that Chubbuck is ill-equipped to deal with. She is not seen as worthy of promotion by the powers that be, and the sexism of the time is present, but even if there had been a level playing field, it is not clear that Chubbuck had what it took to succeed in her field. Her erratic behavior, and outspoken insubordination would have gotten her fired in most places of work. She was stiff on camera. The obstacles she faced were real, but her internal struggle was bigger than anything external.

It is rare to have a film in which a woman who is difficult to understand and to like is the viewpoint character. That alone makes the film interesting. Rebecca Hall who played Chubbuck in the film said she was drawn to the film for just this reason. “There are a lot of films about the coolness of being a misfit,” she said, “I don’t know how many films there are, certainly about women, where it shows how painful it is to feel that you don’t fit in and that you are different…”

In this era, where we are sensitive to the idea of appropriation, something that comes up quite a bit in articles about the film is the fact that the writer and director are both men. Should a man have been the one to tell this woman’s story? Is this just exploiting Chubbuck again?

Each of us has many facets to our identity. Yet we consider some identity categories to be more fundamental than others. I am firmly of the opinion that the best person to tell as story is the one who is taken with a story and can’t let it go. Craig Shilowich, the writer of Christine, was drawn to the story because he had experienced depression himself. In the lead up to her dramatic last act, he saw a vehicle to explore mental illness. I would argue that the most important aspect of Chubbuck in this story is not her femininity but her mental illness.

Shilowich refuses to turn Chubbuck into a symbol of a greater cultural message. It might have served the drama better if he had, but he was right to resist the easy sensationalism that Chubbuck’s final statement seems to critique. In the end, I was left with a visceral sense of the frustrations of trying to reach someone who is depressed and who makes herself unreachable. Most of us have experienced–if not clinical depression–at least periods of feeling like an outcast, feeling misunderstood or unable to connect to others.

I was not left with an answer to the perhaps more compelling question of why Chubbuck chose to act in such a public manner.  Why did she chose to make her final act a violent rebuke? It was a death that was engineered not only to end her own pain, but to inflict trauma on others who were forced to witness it.  We can understand and empathize with the person who finds it too difficult to go on living, but the person who wants to force other people– strangers, society at large– to suffer with her?

I find a line from the Boomtown Rats song repeating in my head: “They could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons.” It is fortunate that most of us find this incomprehensible and can’t truly empathize.

The film succeeds, then, in what it attempts to do. It is a think piece. A story about a sensational, tabloid-esque story that is consciously anti-sensational and humanizing. It is at the same time disturbing and, for a film that is framed around an ending, strangely unresolved.

There was a line in a Rolling Stone review of the film that struck me. It was, wrote Sam Adams, “a time when things could happen without being recorded.” This led me to a whole series of reflections on how the dictates of what constitutes a good story, and a proper ending, effects our day to day lives and how we see ourselves. This article is already too long, so I will leave those thoughts for another day.

The Three Plots of Romantic Comedies

The home page of You Tube suggested this video to me, and who am I to argue with an algorithm?  I watched it. I’m sharing it here basically for the first few seconds in which Bill Maher describes the three plots of romantic comedies, “she marries her boss, stalking is romantic, and I hate you then I love you.” He forgot one: deceiving someone is a great way to get to know them. (Maid in Manhattan, Never Been Kissed, Roxanne) More on this category later.

Every writer has her particular obsessions, themes and questions she keeps coming back to. One of mine is the effect of story telling on our every day lives. It is what drew me to the story of the feud between two of Oscar Wilde’s lovers over his legacy.

Oscar’s Ghost begins:

This is a story about stories. On its most basic level, Oscar’s Ghost is about Oscar Wilde’s life and how its telling affected the lives of two people whom fate had cast as characters in it. But it is also about other stories: the stories told in courtrooms masquerading as the `whole truth’; the stories we tell ourselves to create an identity; stories we tell others to carve out a place in the community; stories that marginalized groups tell themselves to make sense of their difference; and the stories society relies upon to explain a moment in history. Oscar’s Ghost explores how all these stories interact and what happens when contradictory narratives collide.

My novel Identity Theft focuses on love stories. In Identity Theft, a rock star, Ollie, who had his greatest period of fame in the 1980s, is going through a divorce and hands social network duties over to the new kid in the office, a directionless stoner named Ethan. Ethan uses his access to flirt with a fan using his boss’s identity. The woman, Candi, has an uninspiring job in a company that is going through restructuring and threatening layoffs. When her favorite rock star starts flirting with her, she believes all of her dreams have come true. Each of the characters at various points in the story try to understand their confusing relationships by comparing their lives to popular culture. Ollie ponders whether he helped advance a false narrative about love with his own pop songs. Candi watches a romantic comedy and imagines she is about to feature in such a story. Ethan, meanwhile, binge watches romantic comedies on the theme of imposters and deceit. He uses this to persuade himself that if he just comes up with a good enough speech explaining that he did it for love Candi will fall in love with him by the end of the movie.

Romantic comedies do not get a lot of love. They’re mocked and maligned as lightweight. But the romantic comedy tropes, like our other popular story telling conventions, are our modern mythology. They are archetypes. They promise that love is transformative. Each person has only one true love. A true love takes a person out of her comfort zone. It is not made it is discovered. It overcomes all obstacles. Once it is found, the happy end has been reached. It is the end of the story.

I am not really sure what this all means for our ordinary lives, but I keep writing about it to find out.

 

 

 

Crackpot Literary Theories

p30200_d_v8_aaLast night I watched the film The Luzhin Defence, an older title, which I got from the library. The film is based on the novel by Nabokov, which I have not read.

After watching the film, I developed an entire literary theory, which I subsequently discovered is utter nonsense, but it is so satisfying I feel I must share it anyway.

The ending of the film reminded me of something my Russian partner once told me.

We were talking about the “American story.” The hero wins against overwhelming odds and there is a happy ending. Good triumphs over evil and we can feel safe and secure knowing Truth, Justice and the American Way are safe. Americans are comfortable with the happy ending even if it’s an illusion. We agree to this conceit the way a ballet audience agrees that it is normal for women to wear tutus and walk on tip toe. It is a narrative convention.

So I asked my partner what the Russian Story was. His answer blew my mind. In the classic Russian tale, he said, boy meets girl. Boy dies. Boy comes back as a ghost. They live (or is it die?) happily ever after and there is a lesson- a moral.

The hero of the Russian story DIES before it has even gotten interesting! The American story is about winning. The Russian story is about what you learn from losing. American heroes continue in the face of all obstacles. They do not waver, and eventually win through sheer force of character and will.

Russian heroes, according to my are destroyed before they even have a chance to begin. Then the hero is reborn to the circumstances, he is victorious in failure and he brings his lesson back to the world. The American story does not teach us what to do with failure. It simply does not give us the option. Villains fail. Heroes succeed.

Now, my partner is a ballet dancer, not a writer. He has not made a study of Russian literature, and I don’t know if his off-the-cuff description of the “Russian story” is accurate or not. It was, in any case, thought-provoking.

When I saw The Luzhin Defence I felt I had confirmation. Spoiler alert: I will now talk about the end of the film.  The Luzhin Defence is the story of a man being driven mad by his obsession with chess. He only knows how to view the world as a chess game. The film focuses on Luzhin’s relationship with a woman named Natalya, who becomes his fiancee. In the film, Luzhin (brilliantly played by John Tuturro) has been sabotaged, and suffers a nervous break-down during a pause in the final game of the world championship. Told that chess is driving him mad, he must choose between a “normal” life with his fiancee but without chess, or chess and madness. He jumps to his death. In the final scene, the grieving Natalya finds Luzhin’s written plans to complete the chess game. Luzhin’s opponent agrees to let her play the game out using his strategy, and it wins.

Remembering what my partner once said, I concluded that Russian drama is not about what one achieves in his lifetime, but about his legacy. It is not the happy end, the tragic end, or the noble end. It is about the after-effects of a life.

Here’s the problem: The epilogue was not in the novel. From a review in The Guardian:

What was a beautifully structured narrative of mental drama becomes a rather over-familiar costume romance, pillowed by a swooningly sentimental epilogue that has nothing to do with Nabokov’s novel.

So it turns out it is just another example of a film maker adding a happy end (of sorts) to a novel that is felt to be too unsatisfying for the screen.

Steven Poole, in his review sheds some light on the problem film makers often face when translating a novel to film.

A clue is to be found in Nabokov’s 1943 short story, The Assistant Producer, in which the narrator draws a lugubrious parallel between cinema and life, both of which mock the unwary with fatal coincidence. “Indeterminism is banned from the studio,” he writes. That is precisely it: the cinema simply cannot maintain creative ambiguity. How do you preserve the master’s playful indeterminism when a movie must show one thing or the other?

So there is a perfectly good literary theory all shot to hell. This all made me think of Oscar Wilde’s story The Portrait of W.H. in which he has his character put forward a theory that the W.H. of Shakespeare’s sonnets was a boy actor in his company. After the character explains all the clues that point to his conclusion (and gets someone else excited about it) he abandons his theory because it pre-supposes the very thing he is trying to prove– the existence of the boy actor W.H.

You can imagine Wilde himself becoming excited about the idea of W.H., building a grand narrative about it, only to make the realization that his reasoning is circular. So he shifts his focus and makes his story not simply about W.H., but about the beauty of believing a beautiful story, rather than the factual underpinnings of the story itself. (Lord Alfred Douglas, always a black and white thinker, in his later years set out to prove W.H. did exist using church records.)

In the spirit of Wilde, I’m not going to abandon my beautiful theory just because it happens not to be true. Clearly the end of the film has nothing to do with Russian story-telling. But for a moment, when I believed it did, I glimpsed something– another option for viewing narrative.

What if our stories were more concerned with legacy than with success in the here and now? Would we live our lives differently?

The Oscar Wilde Shrine and The Acts of the Apostles

“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”-Acts 3:15, English Standard Version

00-story-image-oscar-wilde-temple 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.

 

 

The Fascinations Underlying Oscar’s Ghost

Thank you to John Cooper for making me aware of his detailed article Finding Oscar, which addresses the question of why Oscar Wilde continues to fascinate more than a century after his death.

As Oscar’s Ghost is coming out on the 15th, I’ve been feeling as though I ought to write about what sparked my interest in the lengthy feud between Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas.

What makes a subject grab hold of one’s imagination? Interestingly, I find myself thinking back to my first literary love, Milan Kundera. In high school I devoured the Hitchhikers Guide series by Douglas Adams. In college I discovered Kundera, making him my first favored author as an adult.

I started, as most readers probably do, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being and something in it excited me and caused me to seek out the author’s other books. My favorites were The Joke and Laughable Loves. Having read the books a good three decades ago, I find that I remember my feelings about them more than I can recall what was actually in them. As I am on the road right now with my ballet project, I don’t have access to my books so I can’t look back and see what I highlighted. That is probably for the best, because it is my reaction that I am trying to revisit.

The fuzzy sense I have years later is that Kundera’s books presented society (in his case, communist society) as a kind of game that everyone is forced to play. Because the system is nonsensical it forces everyone, whether they conform or rebel, to live nonsensical lives. The idea that people have control over their lives is laughable, and yet we cannot help but to live as though this were the case. The characters did not understand each other. They acted on wrong assumptions about each other’s motives sometimes with disastrous consequences. Now, as I said, someone with a more recent familiarity with these books may look back and ask “What exactly were you reading again?” Memory is like that.

In looking back to those elements, however, I get a sense of some of the abstract ideas that fueled my interest in the Oscar Wilde circle and the feud between Douglas and Ross. Before I decided to write on the subject, I read a great deal about it. The Wilde story brings into sharp relief the problem of the individual vs. society. Even rebels– people who do not or cannot conform to society– must live within it. It is difficult to see your own society clearly, being immersed in it. Reading vivid descriptions of others at odds with elements of their society, how they try to balance conforming and resisting helps us to understand the larger forces that shape our own lives. In Lord Alfred Douglas you have someone who was favored in every way by his society– except for one.  The internal conflict of someone who is conservative and naturally inclined to back the status quo and who yet cannot conform in a way that his culture deems vital, was of great interest to me. As were the various misunderstandings between him and his once intimate friend Robert Ross and how social forces helped to escalate them.

Before I wrote on the subject, I obviously did a lot of reading, and I found that most people who wrote about the conflicts took sides. There seems to be always a Team Bosie and a Team Robbie. I found it most engaging to try to understand the perspectives of both and how each was prodded by his own situation, personality, assumptions, goals and shortcomings.

 

Extraordinary Tales About Ordinary People

“…both Oscar and myself are merely ordinary people who are very fond of one another and very anxious to live peacefully joyously and happily, and without scenes and tragedies and reproaches and all that sort of thing.”-Lord Alfred Douglas, letter to his mother 1894

wilde-douglas

Lord Alfred Douglas’s mother was worried. In 1894 she read Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and it struck a little too close to home. Given her son’s relationship with the older Oscar Wilde, the tale of an older man manipulating a younger to depravity disturbed her and she wrote to both Wilde and her son urging them to end their association.

Bosie responded with two long letters defending his relationship. He explained that Dorian was fiction.

There is not one real point in common after that between Lord Henry with his bitter cynicism, his cruelty, his heartlessness and his selfishness, and Oscar Wilde with his humour, an his loyal kind and forgiving nature which make him altogether more like a grown up boy than the sort of cynical subtle and morbid creature which you want to make him out…Lord Henry is an artificial waxwork figure of what Oscar might be, without his enthusiasm, his humanness, his sympathy and his kind sweet nature…

The fact is that no such person as Lord Henry Wotton ever existed…Nobody wants to murder anyone else’s soul…Oscar has no desire to ruin my soul in order that he may have the pleasure of getting a morbid satisfaction from the contemplation of its ruin, he is merely a very brilliant and very irresponsible and very impulsive creature who is very fond of me, and who enjoys life thoroughly, and who wishes to be as happy as he can under the circumstances in which he finds himself placed. I am extraordinarily fond of him, and he is extraordinarily fond of me, and he wishes me to be successful and happy. He always encourages me as much as he possibly can to work and to do something, and so far from wishing to ruin my soul, or ruin anything else, he doesn’t think of such nonsense at all, and he and I can afford to laugh at all this hysterical twaddle and at the same time to regret that it is able to be a great annoyance a great hindrance and a great discomfort…

The notion that one person could mesmerize another and take control of his soul was not Wilde’s invention. It was found in much of the era’s popular literature. George du Marier turned these anxieties into the most popular novel of the era, Trilby, with its manipulative character Svengali. These stories influenced how people interpreted the world around them. When they looked at Wilde and Douglas the story was clear.

Bosie tried to convince his mother that Wilde did not have undue influence over him, in fact he had more influence over Wilde than the other way around. In truth, like any couple, they influenced each other. This would not be the finding of the courts, however. The legal actions that sent Wilde to jail began when the playwright sued Bosie’s father, Lord Queensberry, for libel for the claim that he was “posing” as a sodomite. To defend Queensberry his legal team had to prove that he had made his statement in the public interest. They did this by arguing that Wilde’s “pose” and his position as a famous writer influenced young men to practice the real vices. This framing persisted throughout Wilde’s criminal trials and beyond.

One of Robert Ross’s challenges as he tried to restore Wilde’s posthumous reputation was to counter the Svengali narrative. The best tools he had in his arsenal were Wilde’s own writings.

Wilde had been playing with the theme of the passionate, destructive love affair in his writing long before he met Douglas. The story of the beheading of John the Baptist at the request of Salome appears three times in the New Testament. It is, as most biblical narratives are, sparse. The longest account is found in Mark 6:14-29. In this account Harod has John arrested at the request of his wife Herodias. Herodias had married Harod after divorcing his half brother Philip and John had decried this as contrary to Jewish law. Herodias would have had John killed but Harod feared him. The opportunity to act came at Herod’s birthday celebration. Herodias’s daughter Salome performed a dance for Herod that pleased him so much he told her he would give her whatever she wanted ‘unto the half of my kingdom.’ Salome went to her mother and consulted with her about what she should ask. Herodias said, ‘the head of John the Baptist.’ Salome did as she was told and Herod, who was less averse to murder than to going back on his word, had no choice but to have John executed and to deliver his head in a charger to the young woman.

In the traditional account, then, Salome is a passive instrument of her mother’s desire for revenge. By the nineteenth century, however, artists had become intrigued with the figure of Salome herself. She was featured in the works of such Romantics as Flaubert, Mallarme and Symons. Two paintings of Salome by Gustave Moreau appear in J.K. Huysman’s novel A Rebours, a book that was highly influential to Wilde. In his play, Wilde used Flaubert’s Greek naming of John, Iokanaan, alternatively spelled Jokanaan.

In Wilde’s conception, Salome is no pawn. She is the one who wants Jokanaan’s head, and not because of his view of her mother’s marriage, but because her desire for him knew no limits. Her lust for him was so strong that she would kiss his mouth even if she had to cut off his head to do it. For Salome Wilde uses language inspired by the Song of Songs while for Jokannan, he draws from Revelation. Thus the language of love is merged with the language of apocalypse. Love destroys its object.

This anihalistic view of love was not inspired by his passionate relationship with Bosie, who he had not yet met when he began composing. It was an artistic myth he already believed, and into which he would write his own love. The concept would find expression again in the Ballad of Reading Gaol as “each man kills the thing he loves” and in De Profundis with Douglas in the role of Salome, the homme fatale whose appetites knew no bounds and whose love was destructive.

De Profundis was Wilde’s response to the notion that he was Lord Henry Wotton. It took the story of Svengali and inverted it. “Dear Bosie” of the letter was based on the emotionally difficult Alfred Douglas– there is no denying he was a difficult man. But the character of Bosie was dramatized and manipulated for literary effect.

Douglas, of course, did not see his relationship in these terms. In his 1894 letter to his mother he wrote, “Surely there is nothing but what is fine and beautiful in such a love as that of two people for one another, the love of the disciple and the philosopher. I think when Oscar’s life comes to be written, as the life of a man of genius and a man who has stamped his age it will be remembered and written about as one of the most beautiful things in the world, as beautiful as the love of Shakespeare and the unknown Mr. W.H… There is no good saying any more except that while I perhaps have no right to say that Oscar Wilde is a good man, neither you nor anyone else has the right to say he is a bad man… Please try and like my friend who is so dear to me.”

He continued to view his relationship in those terms until he was confronted with the unpublished parts of De Profundis years after Wilde’s death.

Late in his life, Bosie told his friend Rupert Croft-Cooke that the thing that bothered him most about De Profundis was the overall tone of the thing, which made his relationship with Oscar into a “solemn sort of thing, crossed with terrible quarrels. But we were laughing most of the time — often at one another.”

The story of the “destructive love affair,” however, has ruled the day. Ideas can spread because they are true or useful. But sometimes an idea retains power not because it is true, but because there is something about it that aids in its transmission. In this case, it is the bias towards drama. De Profundis is a compelling story well-told. When the ancients wanted to preserve their histories through oral folktales they mythologized them. In modern times, a book proposal that is full of drama and conflict will always find an easier path to publication than a book that de-mythologizes.

Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Spin

In his 2014 book Wilde in America, David M. Friedman argued that Oscar Wilde invented modern celebrity.  He was the first of what is now a familiar type: the person who seeks fame in order to enable a career rather than as the result of a career. As he put it:

It is a mind-set where everyone thinks they could be famous and, even more to the point, should be. It is a belief system in which “celebrity,” a word that once referred exclusively to persons of achievement—artists, athletes, politicians, and so on, even criminals, who left their mark on history through their deeds—has expanded its meaning to include persons famous merely for being famous, a status won by manipulating the media. It is a worldview where fame isn’t the end product of a career but the beginning of one. It is the part of modern life we call celebrity culture.

Wilde’s greatest creation was arguably the persona of Oscar Wilde. After suffering the public shame of a trial for gross indecency, the document he wrote in prison De Profundis can be read as the author’s mourning process for the loss of that persona.

When he came out of jail he faced what we might today call a serious branding problem. Enter Robert Baldwin Ross. If Wilde was the first modern celebrity then his trusted friend, business advisor and later literary executor was something else. He was the first modern crisis PR manager.

Ross had a great challenge ahead of him. He had to overcome the popular notion that Wilde was a Svengali who lured young men to immoral practices. He had to convince the public at large that Wilde was not dangerous to read. At the same time, he wanted to keep the symbol of Oscar Wilde available to the counter-cultural community of homosexual men, while keeping that aspect from interfering with his goal of a wider market for Wilde’s works. As a crisis PR manager, Ross was incredibly successful. Ross achieved something no one thought possible– he brought the Wilde estate out of bankruptcy, created a growing market for his works, and with the release of an edited version of De Profundis, the British public started to reassess the man and the artist. If it weren’t for Ross’s efforts, it is entirely possible that Wilde would be a much more obscure figure than he is today.

But as a PR manager, Ross was not acting as an archivist or historian, he was practicing spin. Ross edited Wilde’s works in places to remove lines that might be read as dangerous innuendo. As he painstakingly compiled and edited works whose copyrights had been sold and scattered, he created a more unified Wildean literary style in the process.  Beyond that, he crafted a mythology about Wilde. The mythology of Wilde persists to this day.

One of the interesting documents I came across while researching Oscar’s Ghost was a dissertation on the artist Simeon Solomon by Carolyn Conroy.  (Conroy, Carolyn. He Hath Mingled with the Ungoldly: The Life of Simeon Solomon After 1873, With a Survey of the Extant Works. PH.D. Dissertation. University of York, December, 2009.)

Simeon Solomon was an artist whose work, which featured beautiful androgynous youths, was much admired in the Wlde circle. In 1873, at the height of his artistic career Solomon was arrested in a public urinal for attempting “feloniously to commit the abominable crime of buggery.”

Robert Ross wrote the most influential obituary of Solomon. As he told it, Solomon’s arrest was the beginning of a sad decline. After these events the artist was shunned by polite society, his work suffered until he was producing worthless copies of the subjects of his glory days. He ended his life as a poor, friendless alcoholic. If this tragic tale of the brilliant homosexual artist destroyed by the Philistines calls to mind the tragic last years of Oscar Wilde it is no coincidence.
The Ross obituary contains stories of Solomon breaking into a house to rob it while drunk and being admitted to an asylum by friends. Conroy investigated these claims and found that “much of this information is, simply either incorrect or unlikely.” In fact, Conroy found that Solomon was enjoying great popularity in America at the time Ross described him as a shadow of his former self.

The tragic narrative of society destroying its artists in a quest for moral purity served a purpose. It asked the public to consider whether such laws and policies were in the public interest. What is more, it created a compelling narrative at a time when the most popular fiction ended not with happy endings but with tragedy.

But to criticize Ross as a bad historian is to assume he intended to act as a historian. Ross agreed with Wilde that what was important about a story was not its basis in fact, but how it affected the reader. Oscar Wilde wrote in The Critic as Artist, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” By crafting an enduring mythology, he was acting as a consummate and pioneering spin master, perhaps one of the finest ever to work in the field.

Interestingly, even Lord Alfred Douglas, at a time when he was at odds with Ross, wrote that he believed such mythologizing had probably been necessary.

But mythologizing does not exist in a vaccuum. In crafting the narrative to the best effect for Wilde, Ross was also impacting Douglas. In my next article, I will talk about that aspect of the story.